A team of scientists at the University of Manchester have demonstrated for the first time that the brain chemistry of individuals suffering from chronic pain can adapt so as to raise their pain threshold and reduce their level of suffering.
Led by Dr. Christopher Brown, the research showed that the number of opiate receptors in the brain—which respond to the natural painkilling effects of endorphins—increase in individuals who experience long-term pain from conditions such as arthritis. A greater number of receptors allows these individuals to withstand a higher level of pain.
Commenting on the results of the study, Dr. Brown said: “As far as we are aware, this is the first time that these changes have been associated with increased resilience to pain and shown to be adaptive. Although the mechanisms of these adaptive changes are unknown, if we can understand how we can enhance them, we may find ways of naturally increasing resilience to pain without the side effects associated with many pain killing drugs.”
Professor Anthony Jones, leader of the Human Pain Research Group based in Salford, welcomed the findings as “very exciting” in regard to their potential future medical application. He commented: “There is generally a rather negative and fatalistic view of chronic pain. This study shows that although the group as a whole are more physiologically vulnerable, the whole pain system is very flexible and that individuals can adaptively up-regulate their resilience to pain. It may be that some simple interventions can further enhance this natural process, and designing smart molecules or simple non-drug interventions to do a similar thing is potentially attractive.”