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Chronic Pain and Neurological Disorders: Is There a Link?

Natan Rosenfeld Natan Rosenfeld November 14, 2021
Medically reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen

A new study published in Regional Anesthesia & Pain Medicine has linked chronic pain to an increased risk of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and stroke. The association persisted regardless of age or general health.

 

The study

 

Researchers from China’s Chongqing Medical University examined data from the large-scale Framingham Heart Study, which started in 1948 with the intention of understanding the causes of heart disease. The study has now grown to over 15,000 participants. 

 

The researchers surveyed 2,464 participants from the Framingham Offspring Study Cohort. All participants underwent laboratory testing and filled out a questionnaire to determine if they lived with chronic pain. 

 

Of the 2,464 participants, 347 answered that they experienced widespread pain. The researchers then evaluated these patients for risk of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and stroke. These participants were found to have a 43%, 47% and 29% higher risk of the aforementioned diseases, respectively.

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Dementia - Signs and Symptoms

Explaining the results

 

The researchers weren’t entirely sure what was responsible for the link due to the observational nature of the study, but they had some theories. First, the individuals with chronic pain may have had pain so severe that it affected their cognitive function. The patients may have also avoided regular exercise due to the severity of their pain. A lack of exercise can contribute to both a higher risk of stroke as well as dementia. Finally, “widespread pain” in and of itself may be an early indicator for the development of Alzheimer’s disease.

 

Nonetheless, the association was clear. “Widespread pain was associated with an increased incidence of all-cause dementia, Alzheimer’s disease dementia and stroke,” the researchers concluded.

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Alzheimer's - Overview

Earlier studies find similar results

 

Earlier studies have come to similar conclusions. A 2020 study published in Pain Medicine examined 17,614 Asian individuals and found that those living with chronic pain had a higher risk of heart attack and stroke, even after adjusting for various diseases linked to the latter. 

 

And a 2017 study of elderly patients, published in JAMA, linked chronic pain to cognitive decline. This study, reportedly the first of its kind, suggested that pain could impair the brain’s ability to encode memories and carry out other cognitive functions. Opioid painkillers were also seen as a potential cause.

 

Whatever the case, chronic pain and neurological disorders often go hand in hand. As new research continues to emerge, we’ll hopefully establish a definitive link and develop new treatment options for chronic pain sufferers.

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