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Men’s Health Matters: How to Ease Chronic Pain

July 20, 2023

Valeria Martinez-Kaigi, PhD, MS

Clinical Health Psychologist

Tallwood Men’s Health Center

By now, you know that one of my go-to topics is the mind-body connection, and how it contributes to health and wellness.

Chronic pain is one of the clearest examples — for men, and for everyone.

Here’s the big takeaway: There are multiple pain centers in the brain, which are part of your central nervous system. That sends communication signals from your brain to the brain stem, and down your spinal cord to the rest of your body.

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Pain lives in the brain.

One of the ways we know pain lives in the brain is from studies of phantom limb syndrome, which is when someone who has lost an arm or a leg can still feel pain from their missing limb. How? The sensation originates in their brain, not their body.

The neuroscience of pain is complex. The brain’s limbic system and anterior cingulate cortex both contribute to the experience — including emotionally processing pain and storing pain memories.

As a result, treating chronic pain is not one-dimensional. You can’t just take a medication or have surgery. Pain reflects a biopsychosocial process that includes your automatic thoughts, emotional reactions, and attention.

> Related: 3 Ways to Relieve Pain Without Opioids

Negative thoughts can contribute to making chronic pain feel worse.

Pain is both a sensory experience, like sight or touch, and an emotional one. This works in both directions: The sensation influences your emotions, and emotions influence the sensation.

For example, maybe you’re having a difficult day with pain severity, and your first thought is, “Nothing’s going to help.”

Your brain pays attention. You start feeling anxious, depressed, stressed. This triggers a stress reaction: Your nervous system sensitizes, your muscles tighten, and your pain severity worsens. More pain centers in your brain light up. Maybe it triggers memories of another time you were in pain, which ramps up the sensation more.

Soon, what might’ve registered as a 4 on a pain scale of 1 to 10 has become an 8 or a 9.

The above scenario is bad enough when it happens just once. But chronic pain is a recurring event. And every time you repeat the same thought pattern, your brain actually grows more sensitive to pain.

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But by changing your thought patterns, emotional reactions, and attention, you can rewire your brain.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a research-backed approach to treat chronic pain, and many other conditions like depression and anxiety. It helps the brain with neuroplasticity, the process of rewiring the function of your brain — basically, retraining your brain.

With the help of a mental health expert, you’ll usually start by identifying your chronic pain cycle of automatic thoughts, emotions, behaviors and physical sensations.

Then you’ll come up with practical alternatives: What’s a different way of thinking about pain? What are coping mechanisms to manage your stress and emotions? You’ll be intentional about practicing this daily. You will learn to respond to pain versus react to pain. Over time, you can desensitize your brain to chronic pain. Practicing CBT techniques can significantly improve your experience with pain, and with it, your quality of life.

Valeria Martinez-Kaigi, PhD, MS, is a clinical health psychologist at Hartford HealthCare’s Institute of Living and Tallwood Men’s Health Center in Fairfield, CT. The “Men’s Health Matters” column spotlights the health issues she’s seen impact men most.