Understanding How Chronic Pain Affects Your Brain

Chronic Pain Affects Your Brain, Carolinas Center for Advanced Management of Pain

Your nervous system enables your body to feel and process pain. This complex system consists of your peripheral nervous system, which includes your sensory and motor nerves, and your central nervous system, which is made up of your spinal cord and brain.

As the premier pain management provider in North and South Carolina, Carolinas Center for Advanced Management of Pain boasts an experienced team that understands the significant role your brain plays in chronic pain and the importance of proper pain management to preserve your nervous system.

How your brain processes pain

When you feel a sensation in your environment, like stepping on something sharp, special pain receptors activate in your peripheral nervous system. Within fractions of a second, messages race through your nerves and spinal cord to your brain to let it know something happened.

When these pain signals from your peripheral nervous system reach your brain, they arrive in your thalamus. This area of your brain determines where to route sensory information for processing.

As your brain tries to understand what happened and identify potential damage, it also messages the emotional center of your brain, or the limbic system. This helps determine your emotional response to the pain, like accelerated heart rate, tears, or sweating.

The way your brain processes this information differs with sudden or acute pain versus chronic or lasting pain. It can lead to significant changes in brain activity and the way your brain functions.

The effects of chronic pain on your brain

When an injury heals, your peripheral nervous system should stop sending pain signals to your central nervous system. When your pain receptors don’t stop firing due to chronic pain, your brain can become overwhelmed by these signals, and this triggers several changes to different areas of your brain.

The thalamus

When pain signals reach your brain, your thalamus opens to receive the information and pass it on to other areas for processing. When your injury heals, the thalamus closes. When you’re in constant pain, the thalamus remains open, which can lead to heightened and more intense feelings of pain.

Gray matter

Your brain is made up of white and gray matter. White matter transmits electrical signals, or neurons, to communicate, and gray matter provides them with nutrients and energy. When you suffer from chronic pain, the constant activity in your brain can cause your gray matter to shrink — up to 11% each year.

Prefrontal cortex

Your prefrontal cortex manages your emotions, personality, and social behaviors. Excessive activity in your prefrontal cortex from chronic pain signals can cause neurons in this area to die. As your prefrontal cortex shrinks, you can experience higher levels of worry, fear, and anxiety as it loses its ability to control these emotions.


Your hippocampus helps regulate your emotional responses, learning, and memory processing. Long-term pain can decrease this area of your brain, leading to memory and learning problems in addition to increased anxiety.


While chronic pain can negatively impact your brain, many of these changes can be reversed with proper treatment. Call Carolinas Center for Advanced Management of Pain or schedule an appointment online to learn about how our effective pain management techniques can help you find relief from your chronic pain.

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