Learn How Your Brain Processes Pain and How You Can Relieve Your RA Pain Naturally

Brain and Pain Connection

How Your Brain Processes Pain

How Your Brain Processes Pain

There are three types of pain:

  • Acute pain is caused by an injury to the body that can last for a few minutes up to six months.
  • Chronic Pain persists long after an injury has healed or can exist even in the absence of trauma. It usually lasts longer that six months.
  • Malignant Pain is caused by a cancer tumor that presses on nerves or blood vessels, causing pain.

If you have RA, the pain you feel is considered chronic pain. RA pain is not usually caused by trauma and it usually lasts for more than six months.

Your chronic pain is transmitted from your joints to your brain through your central nervous system. Your body contains sensory neurons called “nociceptors”. These nociceptors are responsible for telling your body something hurts. Some of them detect harmful chemicals, others detect temperatures and others detect bodily trauma. They relay messages through two types of fibers:

  • A fibers have a myelin sheath that allows them to relay pain quickly. They report pain to the brain quickly.
  •  C fibers conduct signals slowly and have many branches so they conduct diffuse pain from many areas of the body to the brain.

When you experience pain, messages pass from the area of pain into the spinal cord where it is relayed to neurons that climb the spinal cord through the brain stem and into the thalamus, hypothalamus and other areas of the brain. There is no one region in the brain that specifically produces pain. There is a wide brain network that produces pain. That is why pain is sometimes difficult to diagnose and treat.

Human cognitive, psuchophysiological and behavioral processes also affect pain perception. Anyone living with the chronic pain of RA knows that the pain can cause brain fog, anxiety, depression  and even poor memory. Scientists at Northwestern University used brain scans to discover that people suffering from back pain had a smaller hippocampus than healthy people. The hippocampus is the area of the brain that is responsible for learning, memory and emotional processing. This may explain why chronic pain causes brain fog, poor memory and depression. (10)

How your brain processes pain is through a very wide pain network in your brain. There is not one single control center in the brain that controls your pain. Scientists are still trying to understand exactly how your brain processes pain.

What Recent Science Has Learned About Chronic Pain

Researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine did a study to determine if the power of romance could overcome pain. (2) They recruited 15 students who were in the early stage of a relationship. They subjected the students to pain on their arm at different levels of intensity. The students were asked to focus on a picture of the person they loved, while being subjected to pain. When the students focused on the pictures of the person they loved, the sensation of pain was reduced. The researchers did state that they were not recommending a love relationship to reduce pain, but rather an enjoyable intense activity that can reduce pain.

In 2016 a study was published in Biological Psychiatry that concluded that mindfulness meditation can change the human brain in a way that can improve health. ( 9) They conducted blood work and brain scans before and after the experiments. They recruited unemployed adults who were under the stress of trying to find a job. The recruits were divided in two groups. One group received formal mindfulness training and the other group received relaxation training. Both groups reported improvement in mood after 3 days of treatment. Both groups received follow up brain scans. Only the group that received mindfulness training had any positive changes in brain scans. They had more activity in the portions of their brain that process stress-related reactions and in areas of their brain that process calming activities. Blood levels of inflammation were checked on both groups 4 months after their training ended. The mindfulness-trained participants had lower levels of inflammation markers in their blood than the relaxation-trained group.

The AARP published an article in 2009 ” Drug -Free Remedies for Chronic Pain” (8) in which they reported the success of treating pain with Guided Imagery. They describe the success of this treatment in graphic detail and explain that chronic pain lives in different areas of the brain from acute pain. Chronic pain is located in the prefrontal cortex and the limbic system. The brain uses these areas for emotional memories. The researchers concluded that  often chronic pain can live long after the cause of the  pain has healed.

NBC News reported just last week that Dr. Kim Bullock a neuropsychiatrist at Stanford University is using Virtual Reality glasses to treat chronic pain. She is successfully relieving her patients’ chronic pain from 1 week up to many months. The treatment tricks the brain into getting the body to act normally. (11)

How your brain processes pain is very complex but we can begin to learn something from recent science about how your brain processes pain. The summaries above teach us several things:

  1. The Stanf0rd University experiment teaches us that our perception of pain can be decreased by concentrating on a pleasant experience instead of focusing on our pain.
  2. The study about the stress of being unemployed confirms the power of mindfulness training.
  3. I would urge you to read the AARP article. There is a powerful true story about the power of guided imagery.
  4. The Northwestern Study confirms that there is a biological reason that chronic pain causes brain fog.
  5. The NBC news story confirms that the brain can be re-programed to change your perception of pain.

 What Can You Do to Treat Your RA Pain Naturally?

We have discussed many supplements and lifestyle changes that you can implement to help treat your chronic RA pain.

The new science teaches us a lot about how your brain processes pain. There is now enough science to confirm that the brain can be re-programmed to alleviate pain.

  • Guided Imagery has been around for a very long time and is very effective for some people.
  • The power of mindfulness training is becoming very popular and well understood. More and more people are getting relief from pain after being trained by a mindfulness practitioner.
  • Virtual Reality is very new. If mindfulness practices work, this new form of re-programming the brain may be successful too.

I will research mindfulness training and explore it in more detail in my next blog.

To Your Good Health and Happiness,




  1. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-chronic-pain-affects-memory-mood/
  2. https://neuroscience.stanford.edu/news/pain-brain
  3. http://www.ohsu.edu/blogs/brain/2013/03/01/pain-management/
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3438523/
  5. http://health.usnews.com/health-news/family-health/brain-and-behavior/articles/2011/12/07/how-the-brain-interprets-pain-and-how-to-get-relief
  6. http://www.brainfacts.org/sensing-thinking-behaving/senses-and-perception/articles/2012/sending-and-receiving-pain-and-messages/
  7. http://www.naturalnews.com/039092_chronic_pain_treatment_remedies.html
  8. http://www.aarp.org/health/alternative-medicine/info-11-2008/drug_free_remedies_chronic_pain.html
  9. repository.cmu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2408&context=psychology
  10. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-chronic-pain-affects-memory-mood/
  11. http://www.nbcnews.com/nightly-news/video/can-virtual-reality-sessions-treat-chronic-pain-stanford-doctor-yes-955306563957

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