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3 Ways to Prevent Chronic Pain from Shrinking Your Brain

In 2004, researchers from Northwestern University conducted a study in which they discovered that chronic back pain diminishes 5-11% of the gray matter in your brain per year—the equivalent of 10-20 years of normal aging.

Last year, the CDC revealed that over 50 million Americans have chronic pain at any given time. As a whole, chronic pain costs $635 billion per year in the United States alone, more than cancer, diabetes, and heart disease—combined! 

Treatment for chronic pain is often opioids and/or surgery. Opioids are highly addictive narcotics with a number of dangerous side effects. Long term, there is little to no evidence that opioid therapy of six months or longer is effective in treating chronic non-cancerous pain. Add in Tiger Woods and Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr as recent high profile examples of the very real complications of back surgery, and you can see that successful treatment for chronic pain is never a guarantee.

There are, however, a few simple changes you can make to your life that may provide relief to your chronic pain without risking the dangers of opioids or surgery. 

1. Avoid added sugar. When we get an injury or an infection, our immune system sends white blood cells to the affected area to heal the injury or fight off the infection. This is known as inflammation. Normally, this is a good thing. The problem is when inflammation becomes prolonged. Too much added sugar in our diet will put us into chronic inflammation, and chronic inflammation will lead to chronic pain and disease. Sugar as an added ingredient—like in cereal, BBQ sauce, and soda—should be avoided whenever possible. 

If you have a sweet tooth that you just can’t shake, Stevia is 200 times sweeter than sugar (and a personal favorite of mine). As an added bonus, a 2015 study in the European Journal of Microbiology and Immunology revealed that Stevia was more effective at treating Lyme disease than the usual antibiotics typically prescribed to treat it. 

2. Get moving. Walking, stretching, yoga, pilates, swimming, and strength training are all very low impact forms of exercise. Each activity involves many muscle groups, including the ever-important core. A weak core is directly linked to low back pain. If you engage in 20 minutes of one of the above exercises just three times a week, you will gradually improve muscle endurance and strength and reduce pain significantly. 

3. Meditate. Researchers at Wake Forest University discovered that meditation reduced pain intensity by 40% and general unpleasantness of pain by 57%. In comparison, painkillers reduced pain by only 25%. 

Constant stress keeps our nervous system in a continual state of “fight-or-flight” mode. Simply sitting uninterrupted in a quiet space for 10 minutes a day with the eyes closed, and your focus on breathing in slowly through your nose and out through your mouth, and you will counteract the dangerous effects of long-term fight-or-flight mode. 

This article originally appeared in the September 3, 2019 edition of the Maricopa Monitor.

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