Being a person with pain is often complicated by the fact that many of the symptoms that contribute to the pain also take a toll on how well the brain works. Memory loss, lack of concentration, and slow learning, are just a few of the characteristics of a “condition” that those of us with pain, refer to as “pain brain.” For me, one of the most frustrating aspects of living with “pain brain,” is that I frequently have difficulty remembering things.
But, as curious person who always needs to know what’s going on in her body and mind, and one who has an active life, I needed to find out what happening in my brain that was causing my forgetfulness. I also had to find out what I could do to improve my memory. Here are a few things I’ve learned about memory and the brain and what those of us with chronic pain can do to keep sharp.
Memory and the brain: a simplified description of how it works:
Through my research, I‘ve found that there is scientific agreement confirming that chronic pain, itself, can actually disrupt brain function (http://www.jneurosci.org/content/28/6/1398.short). I’ve also discovered that in order for memories to be recorded and recalled in the brain, there is a particular sequence for things to occur. The brain can be likened to a hard drive and each memory as a file. A file record is created as data is collected (i.e., the individual pays attention to what/where/why/how/when/who is happening at a particular time. That data is then organized and recorded in a file that is sent to the hard drive. During sleep, the memory is sorted and filed with keywords identified for retrieval later.
The potential for interrupting the process exists at any point. In the data collection phase, if the brain is distracted by pain sensations or is worn out from other efforts, the data collected may be incomplete. Poor quality of sleep may prevent the correct filing or create an incomplete list of keywords such that retrieval is difficult or impossible later.
Aging also plays a role in this. The older one gets the more files have been squeezed onto that hard drive and some may have been pushed farther back (or written over) to make room for newer or more relevant memories.
Ways to Keep Sharp:
In addition to reviewing the scientific literature, I’ve also read numerous articles in the mainstream media about how to “exercise” the brain and improve memory (many not specifically pain-related). What all of these articles stress that physical exercise, sleep management, and eating good whole foods are all essential for maintaining brain health and memory function.
Exercise: move as much as you can everyday
There’s a great deal of evidence that physical activity improves brain function and memory. Much of the literature describes how walking and aerobic activities can improve memory, but for many of us with chronic pain, it’s often difficult to do these things. Keep in mind that household activities, walking a lap around the inside of the house, or walking around the block can be worthwhile workout. Consider “working out” as anything that has you moving around, pumping your blood, and breaking out in a light sweat. If years of chronic pain have left you physically deconditioned and with poor memory function, you can take a step toward improving the quality your life by just moving some part of your body for a minute today and a minute tomorrow. Then, you can try to double it on the third day and every third day thereafter. Add it to your daily routine and remind yourself to move as much as you can every day.
Eat good food: eat “brain food”
There are numerous articles on the internet describing the importance of having a nutritionally rich diet for “brain health” and how eating the right “brain” foods can improve memory function. Eating whole foods is preferable to taking supplements. Choose foods that provide DHA Omega-3 Fatty Acids, choline, L-tyrosine, folate, and Vitamins B, C and E. Vegetables, avocados, salmon, berries, cherries, omega-3 fatty acids, nuts and seeds, tea and dark chocolate are good brain foods.
Get a good night’s rest:
In 2013 Björn Rasch and Jan Born published a research review of results of numerous studies relating sleep to memory function. Their review article paints a full picture of the ways in which sleep enhances memory. In it, they say that the brain that is awake is encoding memories, and that the brain that is asleep is consolidating and stabilizing memories. A brain that does not achieve the necessary levels of sleep (rapid-eye-movement (REM) or short wave sleep (SWS) will not have adequate resources to form long-term memories.
Those of us with chronic pain often find it difficult to get a good night sleep. Check out these tips: Mayo Clinic
Boosting Memory (popular media)
“10 Brian Exercises That Boost Memory” (Everyday Health)
“Memory Loss: 7 Tips to improve your memory” (Mayo Clinic)
“5 Daily Brain Exercises” (Ask Men)
“Which Brain Exercises Improve Memory Best?” (Reader’s Digest)
About Sleep’s Role in Memory, Rasch, B., Born J., Physiological Reviews, 1 April 2013, Vol 93 No. 2, 681-766