Does chronic pain affect memory?

People who suffer from chronic pain may be more at risk of experiencing problems with short-term memory (working memory). At least, this is what the results of a small study suggest. Researchers recruited 24 patients from a pain clinic, all of whom had been suffering from chronic pain for at least six months.

People who suffer from chronic pain may be more at risk of experiencing problems with short-term memory (working memory). At least, this is what the results of a small study suggest. Researchers recruited 24 patients from a pain clinic, all of whom had been suffering from chronic pain for at least six months.

Researchers evaluated the attention and working memory of the 24 chronic pain sufferers. They were able to observe that these people had difficulty maintaining a “memory trace” of one piece of information while they were simultaneously busy with another task (multitasking). For example, this is what occurs when a mother, baby in arm, cannot remember the telephone number she wanted to jot down when she finally finds a piece of paper to write it on.

Researchers believe that chronic pain hinders the capacity for concentration by monopolizing part of the resources the brain normally allocates to short-term memory. Short-term memory is the temporary “storage tank” where information is processed prior to being stored in long-term memory. When an individual performs a number of tasks simultaneously, his or her brain already has to divide its working memory resources between all of them. It seems that chronic pain not only disrupts a person’s attention, it also takes-up additional resources, which would explain why sufferers report short-term memory problems.

This small study is an encouraging step towards finding answers to the memory problems chronic pain sufferers must deal with. Perhaps additional studies will be able to identify the exact cognitive mechanism affected, and eventually lead to new strategies to help these patients.

If you are suffering from chronic pain and have also noticed you are experiencing memory problems, know that you are not alone. You should not hesitate to speak with your physician or your pharmacist if you feel your pain is not adequately controlled. They are likely to have strategies to help you manage chronic pain and achieve adequate relief!

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