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Is Chronic Pain a "Bad Memory" Produced by our Glitchy Brains?

Recent research examines how chronic pain can be traced back to the memory functions of the brain.

Today’s cutting-edge neuroscience could dramatically transform how doctors understand and treat chronic pain, says translational neuroscientist Dr. Peter V. Madill. Although we generally understand pain as a sign that something in our bodies is going wrong, that’s not always the case. Madill believes that the secrets to chronic pain can be found in understanding how our brain uses, and misuses, the function of memory.

“Pain is a healthy thing when it's acute,” Madill explains. “The experience of pain is an incredibly effective adaptive response that we've evolved that helps keep us alive.“

However, much incurable or "chronic" pain, Madill argues, is an incorrect neurological message. “Our brains' biology goes off the railway tracks, from healthy, acute pain to dysfunctional chronic pain,” he says.

Recent research has suggested that some memory-related psychotherapies can be used to lessen chronic pain. Madill compares those mechanisms to scratches on vinyl records.  

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“It's just like these memory mechanisms keep bleeding out the same protective message that wears people down,” Madill explains. “It takes them out of the cycle of their lives.”

Madill’s research could have applications for the ever-more-common symptoms of long COVID. Like pain, he says, “being sick is an adaptive response.” With long COVID, though, the body continues producing symptoms long after the viral infection has subsided. “This may be an aberration of memory mechanisms and consciousness fed by these memory mechanisms.”

Watch the full interview: