Living with chronic pain can be truly stressful, but a new study contributes to growing research that managing stress may help reduce discomfort as well. Doctors from the University of Montreal found an association between the intensity of the pain experienced by chronic pain patients and their reported stress levels.
In the small study of just 24 participants, 16 of whom had chronic pain and 18 of whom were healthy control subjects, researchers found that patients who had a smaller hippocampus were more likely to also have higher cortisol levels. And higher levels of the stress hormone, in turn, contribute to increased reported pain scores on a scale of intensity.
"Our study shows that a small hippocampal volume is associated with higher cortisol levels, which lead to increased vulnerability to pain and could increase the risk of developing pain chronicity," lead author Étienne Vachon-Presseau said in a statement.
Vachon-Presseau and colleagues measured cortisol levels in saliva samples supplied by all study participants. They then asked them to report pain levels, measured hippocampus size using fMRI and tracked response to pain stimuli using another fMRI.
The fMRI tests revealed that subjects with the smallest hippocampus sizes by volume were also more likely to have a greater response to pain in an area of the brain that's linked to anticipatory anxiety. Subsequently, analysis showed that those patients were also more likely to have higher levels of cortisol.
Previous research has also shown an association between stress response and chronic pain sufferers. Now, many chronic pain specialists recommend a de-stressing practice like meditation to help ease pain response. The researchers hope their study will help support that treatment.