How Pain Affects the Brain

When you feel pain, whether it’s a dull ache or a sharp, stabbing sensation, it’s thanks to your nervous system. This complex system has two parts: the sensory and motor nerves in your peripheral nervous system, and your spinal cord and brain, which make up your central nervous system. Together, they help your body process and feel pain.=

At Metro Denver Pain Management — or MD Pain — our experienced team understands how chronic pain can impact your brain, and how proper pain management is crucial to keeping your entire nervous system healthy.

How your brain ‘feels’ pain

Your peripheral nervous system helps gather information from your environment so your brain can help you feel sensations. 

Here’s an example of how it works. If you burn yourself on a hot stove or you stub your toe, your peripheral nervous system activates special pain receptors that start sending urgent messages to your brain that something has happened. 

In mere fractions of a second, these signals travel through your nerves and spinal cord all the way to your brain, where they finally reach your thalamus. Your thalamus acts as a traffic controller, deciding where to send these sensory messages for additional processing.

As your brain processes these pain signals and searches for signs of damage, it activates your limbic system. This area is the emotional center of your brain, which you can thank for any emotional responses you may feel. Common reactions to pain triggered by the limbic system include tears, sweating, or an accelerated heart rate.

When you live with chronic pain, this process can cause significant changes in these activities and how your brain functions.

How chronic pain changes your brain

When you have acute pain, your symptoms stop when your injury heals. This happens naturally because your peripheral nervous system stops sending pain signals to your spinal cord and brain. 

If you have chronic pain, however, your pain receptors continue firing. With all of the constant messaging, your brain becomes overwhelmed, causing changes in both emotional and cognitive areas of your brain:


In acute pain situations, your thalamus opens to receive a pain signal and closes when your injury heals. When you live with chronic pain, your thalamus remains open to keep routing the pain signals, which can lead to more intense and heightened feelings of discomfort.

Gray matter

Your brain contains two kinds of matter: white and gray. Your white matter is brain tissue made up of nerve fibers that carry signals; think of it as the wiring inside your computer that transmits information. 

Gray matter contains nerve cells and powers your white matter by supplying it with energy and nutrients. Living with chronic pain causes your gray matter to decrease, which impacts your ability to think, adapt to new information, or make good decisions.

Prefrontal cortex

The prefrontal cortex is the part of your brain responsible for managing social behaviors, personality, and emotions. When it experiences excessive activity in response to chronic pain signals, neurons in this region can die, causing this part of your brain to shrink. As a result, you can experience higher states of anxiety, fear, and worry as your prefrontal cortex becomes unable to manage these emotions properly.


Your hippocampus is a small structure in your brain responsible for forming new memories, learning, and emotion. Living with long-term pain can shrink this important area, causing increased anxiety and problems with your memory and learning.

The good news is that, even if you’ve been living with chronic pain for a long time, effective pain management treatment can reverse many of these changes in your brain. 

To learn more about our personalized approach and innovative solutions, call one of our convenient MD Pain locations in Greenwood Village or Parker, Colorado, to set up your appointment. You can also send us a message here on our website. 

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