Chronic Pain and the Immune System
Chronic pain can impact physical and mental health in various ways. One of the physical consequences of chronic pain is the effect it can have on the function of the immune system, making the body more susceptible to illnesses. This can occur due to changes in T-cells, stress, or immunosuppressant therapy.
Changes in T-cells
The article, “Chronic Pain Changes Our Immune System,” published on painnewsnetwork.org (an online non-profit news source focused on chronic pain and pain management) on January 16, 2020, cites a study in which researchers at McGill University in Montreal found that chronic pain may affect DNA methylation (a process that changes the activity of a DNA segment). The study, conducted on rats, found that the genes in certain immune system cells that fight infections, called T cells, appear to be altered by chronic pain. Therefore, the body may not be able to fight illness or infection as well as it otherwise would.
Pain causes a stress response in the body, which leads to a rise in the stress hormone cortisol. Higher levels of cortisol reduce the immune system response. Stress can also decrease lymphocytes, which is a type of white blood cell that helps fight off infection.
Chronic pain can be associated with autoimmune conditions, such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis. Autoimmune conditions, along with various other health conditions, may be treated with immunosuppressants. These medications, including corticosteroids and biologics, are often necessary to treat autoimmune and other health conditions, but a major side effect is lowered immunity to infections and infections that are more difficult to treat.
Tips to help prevent illness despite having a weakened immune system include the following:
- Support the immune system by getting plenty of sleep, eating a well-balanced diet, and staying as active as possible.
- Engage in proper hand hygiene (frequently wash the hands with soap for at least 20 seconds).
- Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces in the home, office, and car.
- Stay away from others who are sick or may be sick. Stay home as much as possible. Practice social distancing.