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How Chronic Pain Affects Your Immune System

Last updated: 03-19-2020

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How Chronic Pain Affects Your Immune System

With so many questions right now about the dangers of the coronavirus (COVID-19), you might be wondering how chronic pain might affect the immune system’s ability to fight off disease.

Since COVID-19 surfaced a few months ago, we’ve learned that certain people are more susceptible to than others. Some of the factors that seem to increase severity of the illness include age, smoking, gender, co-existing chronic medical problems, heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, and underlying lung problems from diseases like COPD. This has led to a general view that those with more compromised immunes systems are more likely to experience the worst coronavirus episodes and a higher mortality rate.

Both chronic pain and ongoing stress can impact immune function. According to past research done in laboratory mice at McGill University, chronic pain may reprogram the way genes work in the immune system. In fact, chronic pain seems to prompt changes in the way DNA is marked in special immune cells known as T cells. While it is unclear how much these changes affect the ability of these T cells to fight infection, there does appear to be a strong connection between chronic pain and DNA marker changes on these important infection fighters.

The experience of ongoing pain can certainly trigger a stress response, and if the pain remains chronic, this can lead to a state of long-term stress in the body. Think of the stress response as a combination of neurologic, endocrine, and immune system changes that come together to help the body ward off some type of perceived danger or threat. If the stress response persists, then levels of the hormone cortisol start to rise. Long-term elevations in cortisol levels are connected with a decline in immune system function. As an example, older caregivers have been found to have lower levels of immune cells like lymphocytes, slower wound-healing times, and are more susceptible to viral infections.

Patients with painful autoimmune disorders, like lupus or rheumatoid arthritis, who are treated with immunosuppressive medications, are also at a greater infection risk. By their very nature, immunosuppressive agents inhibit the body’s natural immune response.

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