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chronic pain memory

Chronic Pain, understand and then forget

Chronic pain affects 1 in 5 people around the world, yet in large part we treat it poorly because we fail to understand its basic nature.

No matter how many people warn us or how many books we read, it’s only after a car accident or touching a hot skillet that we really learn the lesson. So the pain’s main purpose is to keep us safe from harm, and to achieve that, it has evolved into a very effective teacher.

The activity of emotionally enhanced memory retention can be linked to human evolution; during early development, responsive behavior to environmental events would have progressed as a process of trial and error. Survival depended on behavioral patterns that were repeated or reinforced through life and death situations. Through evolution, this process of learning became genetically embedded in humans and all animal species in what is known as flight or fight instinct.

Emotion and memory

Experiencing this instinct through traumatic physical or emotional stimuli essentially creates the same physiological condition that heightens memory retention by exciting neuro-chemical activity affecting areas of the brain responsible for encoding and recalling memory.

memory and pain

How does memory work?

Memory is the process in which your mind records, stores, and recalls information. It is an extremely complex process that is still not well understood.

The first step in memory creation is the recording of information into the short-term memory. This process of encoding new memories relies heavily on a small area of the brain called the hippocampus. It’s there that the vast majority of information you obtain throughout the day comes and goes, staying for less than a minute.

Sometimes though, your brain flags particular pieces of information as important and worthy of being transferred into long-term storage through a process called memory consolidation. It is widely recognized that emotion plays a major role in this process.

pain and memory

Certain techniques and medications can exploit the reconsolidation process, effectively removing, for example, the feelings of fear associated with a particular memory.

Relieving chronic pain by forgetting it

The role of memorization in the development of chronic pain is key in the understanding of chronic pain. If chronic pain is partly just a memory, then to overcome chronic pain we might just need to learn how to forget it instead of taking opioids or other medications.

This isn’t suggesting that your pain is not real or that it’s all in your head, What it means is that if the causes are in the brain, the solutions may be there, too.

Dr. Tor Wager of Dartmouth College


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