The world-first study published in Frontiers compared the brain scans of 19 patients with chronic pain against the scans of 19 healthy people. Their findings showed those with chronic pain have smaller amounts of a key chemical messenger, glutamate, in the part of the brain that controls thoughts and emotions.
“The study shows people with chronic pain experience disruptions in the communication between brain cells. This could lead to a change in personality through a reduction of their ability to effectively process emotions. This will make them more negative, fearful, pessimistic or worried,” Associate Professor Gustin said in a statement.
While it seems glaringly obvious that experiencing crippling, chronic pain would influence your disposition, the research is incredibly important in shaping how sufferers are viewed and treated.
“People with chronic pain are often unfairly labelled as having certain personality traits that make them more likely to experience pain,” said Gustin. “But through this new discovery, we now know that the brains of people with chronic pain have changed physically. This change, rather than an inherent personality trait, may cause them to develop a negative temperament, which could be impacting on all aspects of their life."
Pain Australia CEO Carol Bennett says stigma is a big issue for sufferers of chronic pain.
"Often people misunderstand chronic pain because it’s invisible pain and when people can’t see it they tend to dismiss it or think people are catastrophising or being particularly negative or difficult," she told Women's Health.
"Chronic pain affects 3.2 million Australians, that’s a lot of people, and many of those people don’t get adequate treatment and one of the reasons is that there is a misconception that chronic pain is not a legitimate health condition when it’s very real and has a very real impact on those who experience it and their families and carers."
Aside from smashing stigma, Bennett says the potentially groundbreaking research could also go a long way in developing treatments.
"It’s a small study so we need further research but it's promising and could potentially be a game-changer for the way we treat and understand chronic pain."
Co-founder of EndoActive Sylvia Freedman was diagnosed with Stage 4 endometriosis – a condition where where tissue similar to that found inside the uterus grows outside of it – when she was 21 years old. This makes her part of the one in five Australians who have dealt with the fall out of chronic pain first-hand.
"I have had instances with friends and family when I’ve been in a pain flare it’s often caused tensions and sometimes arguments in my relationships with either a partner, friends or family," Freedman told Women's Health. "I think the lack of understanding of how quickly a pain flare can come on and the frustration from loved ones when you’re committed to something and all of a sudden you can’t go to your best friend’s birthday two years in row or you can’t hold up your end of the bargain when it comes to cleaning the house because you’re just in a pain torture chamber for three days and you’re unable to move. It causes arguments even among the people who love you the most because it’s a very hard thing for people to understand."
As to whether chronic pain has changed her personality, Syl says it’s a complex "chicken or the egg" situation.
"Who wouldn’t be depressed and fatigued and pessimistic if chronic pain is affecting their life so much, so it’s very difficult to decipher, which came first what caused what," she says. "The study is incredible, it’s amazing insight and quite often when you have a chronic illness or chronic pain it’s nice to be able to prove with science that this isn’t a choice for me to behave this way or live this way."
She describes the findings as both validating but deeply saddening.
"On the one hand great, this proves that I’m not going crazy and I’m not overreacting, my brain has changed structure to the point where it’s changing my personality, it’s wonderful we can now prove that but that’s a horrible thing to know and to live with," she explains. "That chronic pain is actually capable of changing your personality and changing your emotions, and making you more of a pessimistic person or less resistant to criticism. It’s bad enough living in chronic pain, we don’t need whatever little strength and resilience we have to be compromised."
There are currently no treatments that target decreased glutamate levels and Gustin will now test whether increasing them might reverse the negative personality changes caused by pain.