The Pain Brain

Millions of Americans are living with chronic pain. A quiet revolution in research and treatment is finding new ways to help them heal.

Even before the pandemic, about one in five Americans suffered from chronic pain. After a year and a half filled with anxiety, grief and often sedentary behavior, that number has only increased.

It is, of course, impossible to talk about chronic pain (typically defined as pain lasting longer than six months) in America without confronting another pandemic: opioid addiction. With so few pain treatments available, many patients see their only options as continued anguish or risking a new, different sickness. In 2020 more than 93,000 people died from drug overdose, with about 70 percent caused by opioids. And opioids don’t always address the pain; only one in four chronic pain patients find enduring relief from painkillers.

Some pain patients have looked to treatments like homeopathy or Reiki. Or they turn to the internet for whatever creams, bracelets or herbs promise relief. Experts have been surprised to see these approaches work, but their success is often largely psychological. Pain cannot be separated from the brain.

The key to solving chronic pain, experts say, is to break the complex interplay of physical and psychological triggers, known as the pain cycle.

Below you’ll find a series of articles about how to do this. David Dobbs introduces us to glia, a long-overlooked nerve cell that quietly controls chronic pain from the shadows. Juno DeMelo shares how a 30-year-old book by Dr. John Sarno cured a literal pain in her butt. Kari Cobham explains the importance of curating your own treatment. Sushma Subramania advises on how to find a pain psychologist; Gretchen Reynolds suggests ways to use exercise for relief; and Cameron Walker says even changing the way you talk about your pain can help.

None of this is to say pain is only a creation of the mind. Rather, the latest science shows that there are many powerful tools available to patients to take control of the pain in their lives — and perhaps begin anew.

— Erik Vance

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