How Does Chronic Pain Affect The Immune System?

Dr Sandeep Radhakrishnan

Pain management has recently become a topic of discussion worldwide with special emphasis on chronic pain. Acute pain management is mostly cakewalk. But the same is not exactly the case with treating chronic pain. As doctors, chronic pain management should be approached from various angles. Doctors specifically look into the adverse effects of chronic pain and the duration of the prescription. Some adverse effects can be far-reaching to the extent of causing irreversible damages to tissues as well as organs.

The public is mostly unaware of such serious issues that the pain killers can cause, let alone the intensity of their harmful effects. Nowadays, when a person suffers from a mild headache, he/she does not wait for a while to check whether it gets relieved by itself. Instead, he/she immediately jumps onto oral painkillers. This was not the story a few years back where people were at least open to using local applicants like balms. Today, in this fast-paced world, there is no room for trial and error. Now, assuming that a mild headache may turn to a severe one without the help of painkillers, people resort to their consumption for quick relief.

Chronic Pain And The Immune System

Chronic pain is defined as pain that lasts at least 12 weeks. The pain may be sharp or dull, causing a burning or aching sensation in the affected areas [1]. While on the topic of chronic pain, it is important to discuss the role of the immune system in the development of painful conditions. Involvement of the immune system can be through the release of various chemical inflammatory mediators like substance P, histamine, bradykinin, tumour necrosis factor, interleukins and prostaglandins etc. B cells and T Cells are the ones responsible for immune-related pain [2]. Recent studies reveal that these mediators not only play a big role in inflammatory pain but also in neuropathic pain caused by damage to peripheral nerves [3].

How Does Coronavirus Spread Quickly And Attack Human Cells Easily?

According to the research done in McGill University, chronic pain can trigger the changes in DNA which are marked in Immune cells like T cells [4]. The extent to which the ability of T cells to fight is affected in this process is yet to be known. However, there is a strong connection between chronic pain and DNA marker alteration in those patients who fight against infections like COVID-19.

COVID-19, Chronic Pain And Immune System

Increased pain (chronic) also triggers the stress factor in the body, which in the long run, affects the endocrine by elevating the levels of the hormone cortisol [3]. These elevated levels of the hormone cortisol are associated with the decrease in the level in the immune system functions. Currently, COVID-19, which has been declared a pandemic, is spreading like wildfire. It is observed that some of the factors that seem to increase the severity of the illness were age, gender, existing chronic medical ailments, heart disease, Type 2 Diabetes(T2DM) etc [4].

This implies that immunocompromised people are more susceptible or prone to experience the worst attack of coronavirus and are hence at higher mortality risk. Because of its nature, immunosuppressive agents inhibit the natural immune response [5]. As already mentioned, patients with painful autoimmune disorders are at a higher risk of getting infected. Prolonged inactivity also makes changes in our body which finally leads to the risk of developing chronic heart disease (CHD), Diabetes Mellitus (DM), strokes etc. Studies also reveal that the incidence of CHD is slightly higher in those experiencing chronic pain [6].

How To Reduce The Effect Of Pain On Your Immune System

Decrease the body's stress response by lowering the over-anxious nervous system through the following measures [7]:

  • Meditation
  • Yoga
  • Regular exercise
  • Listening to music
  • Breathing exercises
  • Tips from Psychologists

Boost your immune system by following a healthy diet, which includes the following [8]:

  • Blueberries: antioxidant properties of anthocyanin in blueberries help in boosting the immune system, especially respiratory tract immune defence according to a recent study.
  • Turmeric: The quality of curcumin present in turmeric will improve immunity in the body.
  • Spinach: it is rich in antioxidants like flavonoids, Vit C, Vit E, carotenoids. Among these, Vit C and E are immune boosters.
  • Ginger: It has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
  • Broccoli: It is a source of vitamin C and antioxidants such as sulforaphane.
  • Green Tea: Same as in the case of blueberries, green tea also contains flavonoids.

Maintain Personal Hygiene

  • Wash your hands with soap frequently for at least 20seconds.
  • Clean and disinfect the living area and day to day working space.
  • Avoid touching your face.
  • Practice social distancing.

On A Final Note...

Remember all of these are preventive measures. Always keep in mind that your health is in your own hands. Prevention is always better than cure.

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