Scientists at McGill University report that chronic pain may reprogram the way genes work in the immune system.
“We found that chronic pain changes the way DNA is marked not only in the brain but also in T cells, a type of white blood cell essential for immunity”, says Moshe Szyf, a professor in the Faculty of Medicine at McGill. “Our findings highlight the devastating impact of chronic pain on other important parts of the body such as the immune system.”
Chronic pain – pain that lasts six months or more — is one of the most common causes of disability worldwide. Despite enormous efforts to find new therapeutic strategies, however, effective treatments for chronic pain remain elusive.
The McGill scientific team examined DNA from brains and white blood cells of rats, using a method that mapped DNA marking by a chemical called a methyl group. ”Methyl marks are important for regulating how these genes function,” explains co-author Laura Stone, a professor in Dentistry and researcher in the Alan Edwards Centre for Research on Pain. This sort of chemical marking is part of the growing field of epigenetics, which involves modifications that turn genes ‘on’ or ‘off’, effectively reprogramming how they work.
“We were surprised by the sheer number of genes that were marked by the chronic pain — hundreds to thousands of different genes were changed,” adds Szyf. “We can now consider the implications that chronic pain might have on other systems in the body that we don’t normally associate with pain.”
The findings could open new avenues to diagnosing and treating chronic pain in humans, the researchers suggest, as some of the genes found to be marked by chronic pain could also represent new targets for pain medications.1 Sometimes medicine works backwards and tries a solution to a problem that is actually the very thing causing the problem.
Perhaps a better solution was to look for treatments that heal chronic pain outside of pain medications. Painkillers add to pain problems they do not solve them – see our article Painkiller risks
Especially troubling is chronic pain and immune system problems in the aging. Elderly patients in general exhibit a higher incidence of chronic and neuropathic pain conditions. This group poses a particular clinical challenge due to age-related problems with drug efficiency and side effects as well as frailty and cognitive decline. Poor control of pain has consistently been identified as an issue for older people.2
Clearly there is a problem of chronic pain damaging the immune system
There are many solutions that can be suggested beyond painkillers and targeting medications. These are the processes of healing not suppression of symptoms,
The importance of sleep cannot be understated – we discuss this at length in this article – chronic pain and sleep, vitamin D has been found to be of great benefit in many chronic pain studies – please see our article vitamin D for joint pain.
2. Paladini A, Fusco M, Coaccioli S, Skaper SD, Varrassi G. Chronic Pain in the Elderly: The Case for New Therapeutic Strategies. Pain Physician. 2015 Sep-Oct;18(5):E863-76.