Traumatic brain injuries can cause neurological issues like dizziness, confusion and memory loss, but new research into the inner-workings of TBIs revealed that they can also lead to the onset of chronic pain.
According to statistics, roughly 1.5 million Americans experience a traumatic brain injury each year. While more than three-quarters of these cases are considered mild and result in relatively quick symptom resolution, researchers discovered that chronic pain in other areas of the body can develop as a result of the original head injury.
“Accumulating evidence suggests that chronic pain is common after TBI,” said Dr. Karen-Amanda Irvine.
The Link Between TBI and Chronic Pain
For their study, researchers reviewed a number of studies involving combat veterans and civilians who suffered a TBI. Researchers uncovered that more than 50 percent of civilians and 43 percent of combat veterans suffered from some sort of chronic pain after their TBI. The most common areas of pain were:
- Chronic back pain
- Shoulder pain
- Neck pain
- Extremity pain
- Migraine headaches
“The most common sites of pain [other than the head] are the neck, back, shoulders, and extremities, and TBI-associated pain has been characterized as primarily musculoskeletal,” said Dr. Irvine.
So why does chronic pain tend to develop after a traumatic head injury? According to Dr. Irvine, it has to do with a disruption in the neural pathways that send pain sensory signals.
“Both clinical investigations and animal studies have suggested that dysfunction in the brain and spinal cord contribute to chronic pain after TBI,” said Dr Irvine. “Specifically, descending neural connections from the brain to the spinal cord, which normally inhibit pain circuits, become dysfunctional after TBI and contribute to pain.”
Preventing Chronic Pain After A TBI
However, now that we’re more aware of this link, we can help prevent the onset of chronic pain after a TBI by taking a few steps after a head injury. Researchers noted that the best way to reduce the likelihood of chronic pain after a TBI is to:
- Get an early diagnosis of your TBI
- Undergo pain management and psychological distress counseling
- Educate yourself about expectations and pain management
- Have routine follow up appointments with a neurologist
Researchers also believe that doctors and neurologists need to take a more individualized approach to treating TBIs, because what works for one person may not work for the next. They also say multi-disciplinary approaches that combine TBI care and chronic pain management may work best for individuals with more severe head injuries, as they may be more likely to develop a chronic condition resulting from their head injury.
So if you’ve suffered a head injury, make sure you have a doctor take a closer look. If you ignore it, there’s a chance that you may have to deal with lingering pain for months to come. If you’re concerned about a head injury, reach out to Dr. Chang’s office today.