10 Of The Best Yoga Poses For Headaches

The Pain-Changed Brain

Until fairly recently, scientists believed that once we reach adulthood, our brains don’t continue to progress in any meaningful way. This idea began to change at the turn of the 21st century, when we developed high-tech tools that greatly expanded our understanding of what goes on in the brain. We now know that the brain is able to reshape itself in response to information and events. In fact, the brain is an always evolving and ever-changing organ—in other words, truly dynamic!


When you learn a new language, let’s say Italian, new cells are created in your brain to store what you’ve learned. As your knowledge of Italian grows, more and more neurons are created to handle this new skill. It’s as if an area of your brain is labeled “Italian Language” and given over to everything you learn about the language. But your knowledge of Italian is not really isolated in one little area of your brain. Instead, your “Italian language neurons” form connections with neurons from other parts of your brain, including those dealing with words and speech, as well as culture and history and food and everything else you’re learning about Italy while studying the language.

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This is an example of neurogenesis, or the birth of new brain cells, which we now know occurs throughout life. As long as you’re learning or experiencing new things, ideas, or sensations, your brain will respond by giving birth to new neurons, and linking those neurons to existing brain cells.

We have learned that the human brain can keep growing and adapting throughout life, and that everything in the brain is interconnected. Thus, what happens in one part of the brain likely affects other parts, and all the individual changes to the brain happen in concert and feed off of each other. This means that what seems like a small change in the brain can actually have a major impact on the whole brain, and ultimately the body, as well.

We use the term neuroplasticity to describe the ability of the brain to reshape itself, “neuro” referring to the brain, and “plasticity” meaning moldable. You may have witnessed the effects of neuroplasticity first-hand. Perhaps your grandfather suffered a stroke and was unable to talk because the areas of his brain handling speech had been heavily damaged. Over time, however, with the aid of a speech therapist, your grandfather “re-learned” to speak. As he went through the various exercises provided by the therapist, his brain reshaped itself, with the speech center rerouting its functions around the damaged area. This is neuroplasticity in action. You also enjoy the effects of neuroplasticity every time you learn something new or have a new experience, whether it’s algebra, a sport, listening to a new kind of music, or anything else. The brain physically changes itself, even if it’s just a tiny bit, to accommodate the new information. However, creating significant neuroplastic changes takes time and repetition, which is why recovering from a stroke can be a long process.

Unfortunately, the process of neuroplasticity doesn’t always produce a happy ending. In response to persistent pain, the brain reshapes itself in ways that fuel the pain and create additional problems, such as mood swings and a loss of motivation. We’re just beginning to understand these changes in the architecture of the chronic “pain brain,” but what we’ve learned so far is an eye-opener. For example, we now know that persistent pain can trigger measureable physical changes in the brain, decreasing the volume of gray matter over the course of a single year of pain.1 This is a major concern, as a great deal of information is processed in the gray matter, home to the central bodies of neurons and their branched “antennae.” Loss of gray matter, which occurs naturally with aging, can hamper thought-processing and decision-making. Studies have shown that persistent pain is associated with advanced reductions in gray matter, which means that chronic pain can literally “age” you.

Neuroscientist Vania Apkarian of Northwestern University has been studying the effects of pain on the brain for many years. He’s made many fascinating and disturbing discoveries, including showing significant reductions in the volume of gray matter in patients with chronic low back pain— comparable to an additional ten to 20 years of normal aging. New insights from recently published research conducted in Norway make it clear that:

• About 20 percent of the chronic pain patients studied showed signs of significant impairment in basic cognitive functioning.

• Cognitive problems are more likely to be seen in patients with generalized pain problems or neuropathic pain (pain from nerve dysfunction), as opposed to pain localized to a specific body part.

• Declines in cognitive function in pain patients occurred at the same rate, whether the patients took pain medication or not.

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