How Does Chronic Pain Affect The Immune System?

effects of pain on the immune system

Your immune system is a complex system that is responsible for fighting off infections, bacteria, and viruses. As we continue to respond to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the effects of pain on the immune system is an important topic. Unfortunately, data shows that those with compromised immune function are more likely to contract the virus and experience severe symptoms that could be fatal. With this in mind, it’s important to understand the connection between chronic pain and your immune system.

Does pain lower immune system response?

Chronic pain is defined as ongoing pain that lasts more than six months. In many cases, it continues long after the initial injury or illness that prompted the pain has healed. This type of pain can make your everyday routine feel difficult, if not impossible. This often leads to depression and long-term increased levels of stress.

When you’re in a state of constant stress, cortisol levels in the body tend to rise, which can lead to a decline in immune system function. This may cause you to be more susceptible to unpleasant side effects and a range of different illnesses. In addition, research shows that chronic pain may actually have a significant impact on your genes and how they work in regards to immunity.

Fortunately, you can help combat the effects of pain on the immune system with some lifestyle changes. It doesn’t take much to boost your immunity and increase your chances of staying healthy. Read on for important tips that may help you boost your immune system every day after we discuss some of the latest research on pain and the immune system.

What are the effects of pain on the immune system?

Despite tremendous efforts to find breakthrough treatment options, there are still thousands of people who suffer from ongoing pain. In fact, chronic pain is one of the most common causes of disability worldwide.

In order to better understand the effects of pain on the immune system, scientists continue to conduct extensive research on how to help this population. Here is what we know so far.

Chronic pain changes our immune systems

Chronic pain may reprogram the way genes work in the immune system, according to a study by McGill University.

The team examined DNA from brains and white blood cells of rats using a method that mapped DNA marking by a chemical called a methyl group. Methyl marks are important for regulating how these genes function. This sort of chemical marking is part of the growing field of epigenetics, which involves modifications that turn genes on or off, reprogramming how they work. Researchers were surprised to find a number of genes that were marked by the chronic pain. In fact, hundreds to thousands of different genes were changed.

“We found that chronic pain changes the way DNA is marked not only in the brain but also in T cells, a type of white blood cell essential for immunity,” says Moshe Szyf, a professor in the Faculty of Medicine at McGill. “Our findings highlight the devastating impact of chronic pain on other important parts of the body such as the immune system.”

Fortunately, the findings in this study could lead to new ways of diagnosing and treating chronic pain. For example, some of the genes found to be marked by chronic pain could become new targets for pain medications.

Link between immune function, osteoarthritic pain and progression

According to McMaster University researchers, the immune system plays an important role in the amount of pain and disease progression experienced by patients with osteoarthritis (OA).

The study found that monocytes, the white blood cells necessary to regulate immune responses, were more activated and pro-inflammatory in women with osteoarthritis. In addition, elevated inflammation and body mass index were associated with this increased activation. When compared with a control group of 22 women of the same age without OA, this combination resulted in increased pain and progression of knee osteoarthritis.

“It is the first study, to our knowledge, to specifically characterize changes in circulating monocytes in individuals with OA compared to healthy women,” said senior author Dawn Bowdish, a professor of pathology and molecular medicine at McMaster, and member of the McMaster Institute for Research on Aging.

The immune-suppressive effects of pain

In this larger collection of studies, researchers studied immune-suppressive effects of painful experiences in both humans and animals.

Stressors such as foot shock and tail shock can provoke pain without tissue damage in rats. The result has been diminishing immune functions, including mixed lymphocyte reactions in lymph node cells.

In humans, surgery has been known to result in immune suppression as well. The invasiveness of the surgery has been associated with the magnitude of immune suppression. Due to the crucial role played by the immune system in maintaining health and resisting infection and disease, this reflects the importance of pain management.

pain immune system

How to boost your immune system

While these studies do indicate a significant relationship between chronic pain and the immune system, it’s not all bad news. There are many ways to naturally strengthen your immune system every day.

By boosting your body’s natural defenses, you will have a better chance at fighting off infections and viruses, regardless of whether you’re dealing with chronic pain. Note, however, that these natural remedies can and should never take the place of your doctor’s guidance. While you can boost your immune system’s health, preventing transmission of illness, as we explain below, is your best approach.

Get plenty of sleep

The importance of sleep can’t be underestimated, especially when it comes to fighting off illness. In a study of 164 healthy adults, those who slept fewer than six hours each night were more likely to catch a cold than those who slept six hours or more each night.

What’s more, studies show that getting a full night of shut-eye may also help reduce inflammation and pain. Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) found that treating insomnia in the elderly could lead to reduced inflammation and chronic pain. Those who were successfully treated for insomnia had a lower level of C-reactive protein (CRP), an identified marker of inflammation. When someone is suffering from an attack of inflammation, CRP levels rise. Adults over 55 who were treated for insomnia had continued low levels of this protein.

If your chronic pain is leading to sleep deprivation, or if poor sleep is exacerbating your pain, get help. A pain doctor along with a sleep specialist can assist in finding the right treatment.

Maintain a healthy weight with a nutritious diet

There are so many benefits to eating more nutritious meals. Even if you don’t see an immediate change in your pain level, you can improve your health to fight off illness. In order for the cells in your immune system to function properly, you need to follow a healthy diet. This is a diet that includes, whole grains, vegetables, fruits, lean protein, and healthy fats.

Studies show that micronutrients and dietary components have very specific roles in the development and maintenance of an effective immune system. For example, vitamin A and zinc regulate cell division, making them essential for a successful and quick response within the immune system.

Doctors and scientists both confirm that eating whole, healthy foods can:

  • Lower blood pressure
  • Protect against chronic conditions, ranging from cancer to stroke
  • Help prevent inflammation
  • Protect your heart
  • Lead to weight loss, which can lessen pressure that leads to issues like joint pain

If you’re looking for more details about the right foods to eat, find out how to create a chronic pain diet that works.

Exercise regularly

If you work out for the first time after a long break, it’s normal to wake up the next day with sore muscles. However, another workout a few days later is generally less painful. While scientists have studied this for decades, naming it the “repeated bout effect,” they haven’t been able to determine exactly why people feel less sore the second time around. What they do know is the immune system plays some role in how muscle repairs itself and protects against additional damage.

One study at BYU produced evidence that shows the surprising presence of very specific immune workers called T-cells.

“You think of T-cells as responding to infections, not repairing muscles–but we found a significant accumulation of T-cells infiltrating damaged muscle fibers,” said Robert Hyldahl, assistant professor of exercise science at BYU. “Our study is the first to show T-cells present in human muscle in response to exercise-induced damage.”

In addition to keeping your heart healthy and your weight in check, this study suggests that exercise may even help boost your immune system. Keep in mind that it does not need to be rigorous exercise to be beneficial. Consider incorporating gentle yoga or morning walks into your daily routine. Create a home exercise program that fits your lifestyle.

Reduce stress as much as possible

The power of your mind can be a double-edged sword. Scientific research shows that stress and immune function are closely related. When you’re experiencing a stressful event, your brain sends defense signals that prompt the release of hormones. These hormones are trying to prepare you for emergency situations, but they have a depressive impact on immunity. This can reduce white blood cells and even increase tumor growth and development.

For those dealing with chronic pain, stress can be an everyday battle.

It doesn’t have to be a single traumatic event or even a significant personal issue. The simple burden of pain can lead to stress. With this in mind, it’s important to find ways to reduce the harmful effects of stress. Exercise, healthy eating, and even meditation are great ways to naturally reduce stress. If these lifestyle changes aren’t helping, talk with your doctor about other options. Acupuncture, therapy, and other methods of treatment can help you reduce stress and improve immune function.

How to protect your immune system

In addition to living a healthy lifestyle, there are a few basic ways to protect your immune system on a daily basis. First, practice vigilant hand washing, especially whenever you leave your house and touch things in public. Take extra consideration to wash your hands for a full 20 seconds in order to be effective, and follow full hand washing instructions from the CDC here. If you don’t have access to soap and water, carry hand sanitizer with you wherever you go. The CDC recommends using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% ethanol.

In light of today’s COVID-19 pandemic, it’s also important to practice basic social distancing for the foreseeable future. Maintain at least six feet of distance from other people in public and avoid crowded places. This is the best way to reduce your risk of exposure to anyone who may be ill.

In situations where you have no choice but to be in public, wear a mask to protect yourself and those around you. Data shows that wearing a mask helps reduce your risk of exposure to the virus and could stop person-to-person spread. Find a mask that fits comfortably in order to keep you from touching your face.

boost immune system

Get help with chronic pain

Coping with chronic pain can leave you feeling exhausted and overwhelmed. While we encourage you to try the recommendations presented here, we understand that sometimes basic lifestyle changes still aren’t enough, and that’s okay. Remember, living with pain isn’t normal.

At Arizona Pain, we work as a team to develop a plan to tackle your pain from every angle. This may include many facets from our comprehensive care program, including minimally invasive medical procedures, chiropractic manipulations, and nutritional guidance. These methods can increase your chances of keeping your pain under control, so you can live a healthier life.

If you live in Arizona and need help managing your chronic pain, contact the Arizona Pain team or click the button below to get in touch with one of our pain specialists. Our trustworthy, compassionate team at Arizona Pain is ready to help you.