CHRONIC PAIN AND IMMUNE SYSTEM: THE CONNECTION

March 19, 2021
Dr. G. Balamurali

With the novel coronavirus caused by COVID-19 pandemic surfacing in the past few months, a lot of patients at our pain management rehab have wondered how chronic pain affects the immune system. Does it lower the body’s ability to fight off the disease, mainly because it is apparent that some people are more susceptible to COVID-19 than others?

People who have heart conditions, diabetes, lung issues, hypertension, and are above a specific age contract the disease with more severity than others. This has led experts to believe that anyone with a compromised immune system will be worse hit by the coronavirus than others and have a higher risk of mortality. So, this brings us to the question of chronic pain and its impact on the immune system.

How Chronic Pain Affects Immunity?

Constant stress and chronic pain do impact immune function. It has been observed that continuous pain reprograms specific genes in the immune system. To be more precise, it changes the way DNA is marked in T-cells, which are specialized cells of the immune system that help fight infection. Although studies have been unable to find out how this change affects T-cells’ ability to fight off an infection, we do know that a change does happen.

  • Chronic pain and stress and immunity

Another reason chronic pain impacts immunity is stress. Ongoing pain triggers the stress response of the body. When the pain is persistent, the body is in a constant state of stress. This long-term and persisting stress response increases the level of cortisol, a hormone. And a rise in cortisol levels has been known to decline the immune function.

  • Chronic diseases

Some chronic pain is related to chronic diseases, which negatively impact the immune system. In such cases, the body is in a prolonged state of inactivity. Add to it chronic stress, and it causes elevated blood pressure, weight gain, and other risk factors. This, in turn, can lead to the development of diabetes, strokes, and other heart conditions.

  • Painful autoimmune disorders

Some autoimmune disorders are painful, like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, and they are treated with immunosuppressive medicines. Since these medications inhibit the body’s immune system, people who live with such disorders are at a higher risk of infection.

In a gist, chronic pain does affect the immune system, which can make people more susceptible to the novel coronavirus.

What precautionary steps prevent COVID-19?

First, limit the effect of pain on the immunity. For this, decrease all causes of stress. Practice calming techniques to relax an over-anxious nervous system. Gentle yoga, breathing exercises, and meditation are all significant steps. Simple things like unplugging all gadgets, watching funny shows or movies, getting fresh air, or some exercise are also excellent.

Lastly, don’t depend on the immune system completely to prevent COVID-19. Always take steps that reduce your exposure to the virus in the first place by:

  • Practice social distancing diligently. Stay away from all public places and crowds
  • Wash your hands for 20 seconds with soap frequently throughout the day.
  • As much as possible, avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
  • All surfaces in your home and car that are frequently touched like plug points should be disinfected.

Stay home, eat well, stay active, and rest plenty. These are the key to avoiding exposure to coronavirus and the pandemic it has brought upon us.

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DR. G. BALAMURALI
Internationally trained Spinal Neurosurgeon with 24 years of surgical experience, from UK. Extensively trained in all niche aspects of spinal surgery as part of 3-year fellowship in the UK (Liverpool & Nottingham), USA (San Francisco & Chicago) and Switzerland (Zurich). Senior Spine and Neurosurgeon in India since 2011.
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Dr. G. Balamurali
Dr. G. Balamurali is one of the leading spine surgeons in Chennai, India. He is internationally trained in all niche aspects of Spine Surgery. He has over 26 years of surgical experience in this field.
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