Chronic pain is defined as pain that has lasted longer than three to six months. It has also been defined as pain that extends beyond the expected period of healing. Persistent pain may lower one’s pain threshold and result in feeling pain even though the original reason for the pain may no longer be present, or the injury may have healed.
Chronic pain due to different causes has been characterized as a disease affecting brain structure and function. MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) studies have shown abnormal brain activity that involves areas related to the processing of pain such as the parietal lobe. Persistent pain has also been shown to cause grey matter loss. However, this is reversible once the pain has resolved.
These structural changes can be explained by the phenomenon known as neuroplasticity (the capacity of nerve cells to regenerate or repair themselves). Using EEG recordings, brain activity in individuals suffering from chronic pain have been shown to be altered. This suggests pain-induced neuroplastic changes can occur. More specifically, the relative beta activity in the parietal lobe (compared to the rest of the brain) is increased, the relative alpha activity is decreased, and the theta activity is diminished.
Pain that has persisted over a long period of time is debilitating because it eventually affects almost every aspect of a person’s functioning: their health, emotions, relationships, self-image and their jobs.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) has proven to be a valuable tool in helping clients deal with chronic pain and the depression that accompanies it. CBT effectively addresses the cognitive difficulties such as negative self image and the distorted beliefs chronic pain sufferers can acquire about themselves and their illness. Learning to identify and replace these denigrating thoughts and beliefs plays a critical role in the healing process.
The emergence of studies relating chronic pain to neuroplasticity also suggest the use of Neurofeedback to resolve maladaptive brain changes and patterns. The goal of Neurofeedback is to abolish maladaptive changes made as a result of chronic pain (as measured by EEG) and thereby relieve the individual’s pain.
Brain wave activity is unusually fast in the parietal and occipital lobes of an individual who experiences chronic pain. The parietal lobe is the primary pain perception area of the brain and fast activity suggests over-activity of this area of the brain.
The fast pattern of pain in the brain is easily seen on the brain evaluation. Neurofeedback training to reduce fast activity – especially over the parietal lobe – and restore a more normal alpha pattern is effective in reducing or eliminating chronic pain.