Chronic Pain Changes Your Brain

Pain becomes a learned behavior.  You begin to guard your movements to protect your body, you fear a surge of pain, you’re worn out, and on emotional overload.  Repeating sleepless nights start to fuel anxiety and depression.  When pain overcomes you even the simple tasks in life feel insurmountable. 

This is because chronic pain, over time, actually changes areas of your brain and eventually alters how your body responds to pain.  Research shows there are measurable changes to your central nervous system and your hippocampus.

Central Sensitization

Long-term pain creates miscommunication between your brain and spinal cord.  Over time, you become increasingly more sensitive—events that are not normally uncomfortable will cause pain, such as your bed sheets brushing over your skin.

It is as though instead of your brain whispering, “you’re in pain…” it begins to scream, “you’re in pain!!!”

When you become sensitized in this way, your perception of pain is heightened.  For example, your nervous system might signal a pain response to even light touch or pressure.  Persistent pain also alters your cognitive function and emotional reasoning. This explains why your pain level may seem disproportionate to the actual physical injury to your body.

The Hippocampus

Pain affects your hippocampus, the thalamus, and amygdala. These three areas of your brain are responsible for learning, emotions, and memory.[1],[2] You might experience a range of symptoms secondary to pain such as brain fog, depression, anxiety, fear, and poor memory. There are days when you feel like you just can’t cope.

It’s not a wonder that depression is a common secondary symptom in nearly 50% of people suffering from long-term pain.[3] 

Prolonged exposure to pain decreases the volume of your hippocampus.[4]  Do you find that it takes you longer to complete simple tasks and that your thinking is muddled?  Research demonstrates that chronic pain interrupts the ability to form the new hippocampal cells required for learning and memory. 

Acupuncture Reduces Pain and Reverses Brain Changes  

Here’s the good news: brain changes caused by chronic pain can be healed! 

The key is to find the right treatment approach that will both calm your nervous system and extinguish your brain’s misinterpretation of cellular communication. 

Acupuncture is proven to reduce pain and have an effect on the central nervous system.  

Research published in NeuroImage: Clinical shows that acupuncture decreases pain and reverses changes in the brain.[5]  Acupuncture soothes your brain’s pain center and helps to restore proper pain response function.  Researchers demonstrated that targeted acupuncture treatments, delivered over a course of several weeks, led to a significant decrease in pain in comparison to placebo acupuncture (which did not reduce pain).  Brain scans (fMRI) confirmed acupuncture’s healing effect too.

Acupuncture should be one of the first therapies you try for the treatment of chronic pain because it has a direct analgesic effect on your nervous system without the side effects that frequently result from drug therapies.

Learn more about how acupuncture can relieve pain.


[1] Malfliet et al (2017). Modern pain neuroscience in clinical practice – applied to cancer, paediatric and sports-related pain. Brazilian Journal of Physical Therapy, 21(4):255-232.

[2] Mutso et al (2012).  Abnormalities in hippocampal functioning with persistent pain. The Journal of Neuroscience, 32(17) :5747-5756.

[3] Turk, D.C, & Gatchel, R.J (2002). Psychological approaches to pain management. The Guilford Press.

[4] Mutso et al (2012).  Abnormalities in hippocampal functioning with persistent pain. The Journal of Neuroscience, 32(17):5747-5756.

[5] Egorova, N. et al (2015).  Repeated verum but not placebo acupuncture normalizes connectivity in brain regions dysregulated in chronic pain.  Neuroimage: Clinical 9:430-435.