What chronic pain does to the brain and what pulsating magnetic fields can do to help
The brain responds strongly to pain, and the resulting mental states dramatically influence the perception of pain. For example, a mother’s kiss is more effective in stopping the pain of an injury than the use of a pain reliever. Athletes injured in the heat of competition often feel the pain only once the competition is over. Soldiers often keep on fighting in the heat of battle without noticing how injured they are. Phantom pain—when a person feels pain in a missing limb or organ—is another example that doesn’t make sense since the source of the pain is no longer present.
These examples show that pain cannot simply be explained by the flow of nerve signals from the site of an injury or to an exaggerated or irregular response in the spinal cord, which transmits the pain from other parts of the body to the brain. The majority of research on pain and pain management focuses on these non-brain factors.
But now, thanks to brain research, we can peer into the brain with various types of imaging tools, including enhanced MRI and positron emission tomography (PET) scanning. Based on this research, pain perception has been found to be the result of interactions between various parts of the brain exchanging and processing incoming pain signals. Even with relatively minor acute pain, about 10% of the brain cortex (the largest part of the brain) is activated, amounting to about 8 billion to 10 billion neurons. The number of actual pain-specific neurons identified in primate brains over the last 50 years is fewer than 100! To give you a sense of proportion, memory is associated with activation of about 8% of the brain, reward pathways 2%, emotion 6%, and pain 6%. So, pain signals from the body enter the brain and act like dominoes spreading throughout the brain and activating various brain functions.
The parts of the brain affected by acute pain include mostly the limbic system, the seat of emotions. These acutely produced reactions gradually go away (extinguish) in time. However, when the pain is more intense and persistent, it does not extinguish from the limbic system, but shifts and expands from the feeling of pain to more of an emotional suffering state.
Over time, this shift causes actual physical and functional brain changes. These changes can cause even minor pain signals from the body to be perceived as worse than they actually are by increasing the sensitivity of the spinal cord and the brain itself to any continuing pain input. In addition, even other non-pain sensations from the body can stimulate the brain circuits of previous pain memories. This means that the focus of clinicians on what the type of pain is—whether from inflammation or neuropathy, for example—for designing treatment is not likely useful.
Brain imaging studies done on chronic pain patients show no increase in pain-specific patterns. There does not appear to be a brain neuron cluster specifically dedicated to pain perception. Instead, the studies show enhanced activity in the parts of the brain related to emotion, the cortical-limbic system. This research shows that chronic pain cannot be thought of as a single thing but a combination of unique brain states. These brain states reflect the specific properties of each type of clinical pain. Any given pain—for example, the burning pain of neuropathy or the sharp pain of a nerve being compressed—can involve different parts of the brain, especially the limbic system, and lead to an emotional preoccupation, depression, and memory and personality changes. These patterns are the “chronic pain brain” leading to chronic pain syndrome. These patterns are modified even more by the effects of addiction from the drugs themselves and the way the brain responds to the drugs.
So, while the most common definition of chronic pain is “pain that persists past the healing process,” this new research can re-define “pain as pain that does not extinguish its memory and emotional tracks.” This means that targeting the cortical-limbic brain circuit in treatment is critical to the control of chronic pain, and because the cortical-limbic brain circuit shares much of the same involvement seen in drug addiction, it could help with that too.
Targeted PEMF treatment for Chronic Pain
Pulsed Electromagnetic Field (PEMF) therapy can be used to target the pain response centers in the brain. There is extensive research on using PEMF therapy to treat the brain and regulate brain function. This brain research has shown that PEMFs are safe and effective to use across the brain. This includes use of devices across the range of intensity, from very high to low. High-intensity PEMFs are often used in the clinical setting, although many people own their own high-intensity systems. Medium to lower intensity PEMF systems are also available and can be used across the brain. PEMFs can help to tone down inflamed and overactive brain functions (hyperexcitability), both by direct tissue actions (repair) and by adjusting brain frequency functions (entrainment).
In other blogs on our website, https://www.drpawluk.com/blog/sleep-pemfs/ and https://www.drpawluk.com/blog/concussion-and-tbi/, among others, we talk about the use of PEMFs for brain entrainment and repair. Entrainment and brain stimulation are also discussed in the book Power Tools for Health https://www.drpawluk.com/product/power-tools-health/.