We’ve known for a while that chronic pain and anxiety have it in them to fuel each other. It’s not uncommon for people who experience chronic pain to also experience anxiety but up until recently, little was understood about the relationship.
Research published recently in the journal Biological Psychiatry has removed some of the mystery, offering new hope for the treatment of pain, as well as anxiety. The study found that a neurotransmitter in the body called … ready? … here we go … pituitary adenylate cyclase activating polypeptide (‘PACAP’) is released in response to stress and is also elevated in response to chronic pain. Neurotransmitters are chemicals in the brain that help send information between cells.
For neurotransmitters to do their job well, their levels have to be just right – not too high and not too low. When PACAP is elevated, we see symptoms of pain, anxiety or both. In previous research by members of the same research team, it was found that PACAP was elevated in women who had post-traumatic stress.
Here’s how it works. PACAP is found along one of the nervous system’s pathways to the brain. The pathway travels from the spinal cord to the amygdala, which is the seat of anxiety and emotions.
The researchers noticed that when there is chronic pain it’s not unusual to also see an increase in anxious behaviours – but – when the pathways for PACAP are blocked (effectively reducing the levels of PACAP), both anxious behaviour and pain are significantly decreased.
‘By targeting this [PACAP’s] regulator and pathway we have opportunities to block both chronic pain and anxiety disorders,’ – Victor May, Ph.D., senior author of study and professor neurological sciences at the University of Vermont.
The research team is now turning their attention to developing small molecule compounds that can reduce levels of PACAP.
‘This would be a completely different approach to using benzodiazepine and opiods – it’s another tool in the arsenal to battle chronic pain and stress-related behavioral disorders.’ – Victor May.
Whether chronic pain and anxiety occur together or separately, their intrusion into lives can be relentless. When they appear, they have a wide reach – for those who love someone who has to live with pain or anxiety, the struggle is also very real. Hopefully, this research brings us closer to finding an effective, safe way to manage pain and anxiety.