With so many queries right now about the dangers of the COVID-19, you might be wondering how chronic pain might affect the immune system’s ability to fight off disease.
Since COVID-19 surfaced months ago, we have learned that certain people are more susceptible to it than others.
Peter Abaci, MD, is one of the world’s leading experts on chronic pain and integrative medicine. He is the medical director and co-founder of the renowned Bay Area Pain and Wellness Center and the author of Conquer Your Chronic Pain: A Life-Changing Drug-Free Approach for Relief, Recovery, and Restoration.
According to Peter Abaci, some of the factors that seem to increase the severity of the virus 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 immune systems are more likely to experience the worst coronavirus episodes and a higher mortality rate.
Both chronic pain and ongoing stress can impact the immune system’s 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.
Overview Of The Immune System
The immune system is made up of two systems, the innate and adaptive immune systems, that work together to protect against infection and notify the body if injury occurs.
The innate immune system is the in-born immune system that recognizes pathogens or injury and mounts an immediate, general response. The adaptive immune system, on the other hand, is an acquired and specific immunity. It not only responds to pathogens, but it also creates an enhanced response to future attacks based on memory.
Both the innate and adaptive immune systems contain cell-mediated and humoral components. In the innate immune system, phagocytes, T cells, and cytokines form the cell-mediated response, while molecules in the extracellular fluid (e.g. complement proteins) make up the humoral response. In the adaptive immune system, cell-mediated immunity involves T cells, whereas humoral immunity involves antibodies, produced by B cells found in extracellular body fluid.
Overview Of Chronic Pain
Chronic pain, defined as pain lasting for more than three to six months depending on the diagnosis, arises when pain signals in the nervous system remain activated. It can result from tissue or nerve damage, inflammation, or in the absence of past insult.
There is both basic science and clinical evidence that continued chronic pain can affect the immune system and vice versa.
Immune Cell Involvement In Chronic Pain
In many cases of chronic pain, there is an increase in the circulating pro-inflammatory cytokines in the blood, possibly due to an immune response, that leads to hypersensitivity.
The innate immune system comes into action first to defend our bodies against a pathogen. This defense involves the leukocytes including mast cells, neutrophils, and macrophages. Following activation of the innate immune system, the adaptive immune system is activated and involves lymphocytes, such as T and B cells.
Immune System Involvement In Chronic Pain Conditions
There is a large number of chronic conditions that are classified by type or site of injury. However, there are certain conditions in which there is no evident cause for chronic pain.
Regardless, the immune system has been implicated in a number of these chronic conditions. The remainder of this review is focused on these types of conditions and the relationship between the immune system and the pain experienced.
Therefore, patients with painful autoimmune disorders, like lupus or rheumatoid arthritis, who are treated with immunosuppressive medications, are also at a greater COVID-19 infection risk. By their very nature, immunosuppressive agents inhibit the body’s natural immune response.
To limit chronic pain’s effect on your immune system, do what you can to decrease your body’s stress response.
Consider calming down an over-anxious nervous system through simple relaxation techniques like breathing exercises, meditation, gentle yoga, or maybe learn special techniques from a psychologist or therapist. Other ways to lower stress include exercise, getting some fresh air, watching a funny movie, and just unplugging from your devices.
Also, don’t depend only on your immune system – take steps that will minimize your risk of exposure to the virus in the first place:
- Wash your hands – often – for at least 20 seconds with soap.
- Avoid touching your mouth, nose, and eyes.
- Clean and disinfect surfaces in your home and car.
- Practice social distancing. Stay at home as much as possible, away from public places and crowds.
There is extensive pre-clinical and clinical research that exists examining the role of the immune system in chronic pain conditions.
So, do not forget to practice the practical steps that will keep your immune system working at its best: eat well, try to get plenty of sleep, and stay active!
Tags: Pain and immune system, Effects of pain on the immune system, Does chronic pain decrease immune system