The Relationship Between Forgetfulness and Chronic Pain

There are many people who live with pain. It's a subjective sensation that can completely alter their lives and affect certain basic important psychological processes such as memory.
The Relationship Between Forgetfulness and Chronic Pain
Andrea Pérez

Written and verified by the psychologist Andrea Pérez.

Last update: 21 December, 2022

Pain can be experienced in many different ways. It can range from mild to excruciating. Furthermore, perception of pain is subjective and varies depending on the type of injury, the individual, the meaning that they give to pain, and how these variables interrelate with each other. In fact, pain is far more than just a simple sensation.

Chronic pain isn’t acute or occasional. It’s like the kind of erosion caused by never-ceasing drops of water. While one drop means nothing, over time they make a really deep hole.

In addition to the pain itself, sufferers have to face the interference that it produces in their daily lives. As a matter of fact, in many cases, chronic pain affects an individual’s life in the most important areas of their life. From the most obvious level, such as physical discomfort, to their emotional and social life.

Woman with chronic pain
Chronic pain can affect most areas of a sufferer’s life.

Chronic pain in the first person

One of the best ways to find out how people with chronic pain feel is by listening to their stories and asking them how each of them experiences it. People with chronic pain often feel alone, misunderstood, and threatened by a kind of pain that they can’t control. For them, pain is an annoyance that interferes in all areas of their lives: work, sleep, relationships, and emotions. It’s truly disabling.

Chronic pain has as its companions the emotions of injustice, loneliness, shame, and worthlessness. It’s a burden for the sufferer and is difficult for those around them to understand. This causes the sufferer’s emotions to often become entrenched and appear in the form of depression, anxiety, and anger.

“Pain is a beast before which the most instinctive tendency of the victim arises: that of fighting to free himself from the clutches of Davalú, who tries to dominate everything and exercise his own monopoly, in the same way that an invader conquers a kingdom.”

– Rafael Argullol-

Chronic pain is silent, inopportune, and rebellious. It’s like an unexpected visitor that hasn’t been invited and hangs around. Furthermore, the sufferer doesn’t know for how long it’s going to stay and how unpleasant their visit will be. In fact, chronic pain touches every aspect of the lives of those who suffer from it.

Chronic pain and memory disturbances

One of the most frequent complaints that sufferers of chronic pain make relates to memory. They describe how their thinking sometimes becomes denser and slower. They also often claim that they tend to remember fewer of their experiences such as conversations, etc.

Years ago, it was thought that memory loss in chronic pain sufferers was associated with the side effects of the drugs the sufferers were taking. However, although some medications can produce certain cognitive alterations, it’s been proved that they’re not a fundamental factor, since a large part of them don’t produce these alterations. In addition, these kinds of memory problems also occurred in people who weren’t taking continuous medication for their pain.

There are other hypotheses that have been investigated and are supported. One of them is the physiological alteration of the processes involved in memory due to chronic pain. The second refers to the relationship between mood, attention, and the pain that the sufferer presents.

The role of attention and memory

To explain how memory can be impaired by chronic pain, we need a little insight into how memory and attention work. Let’s start with the assumption that each of us creates our own reality based on our life experiences, contexts, and circumstances. This way of building reality is rather like building a house.

To build a house, you first need materials (bricks, beams, cement, etc.). The two materials with which you build a house are biology and experience. Your attention and memory are in charge of the building process.

Your attention is responsible for looking at the information that’s relevant to you. However, sufferers of chronic pain focus their attention on the pain processes, and not so much on what happens outside their own world. This means that they only concern themselves with the pain, ignoring other valuable aspects of their life as their attentional resources are finite.

Once the information has been chosen and selected, the memory is responsible for storing it in a large warehouse that’s constantly modifying what it’s saved. It’s rather like keeping everything that seemed important in a wine barrel in a warehouse. We know what the information is when it enters but, as it’s stored, it’s transformed.

Physiological and psychological alterations in memory

Chronic pain alters the functioning of both attention and memory. These great selectors of information are affected in those who suffer from chronic pain. They focus on attending to information related to the pain and remember all their experiences in a highly emotional way.

A chronic pain sufferer’s attention works like a spotlight. It illuminates the pain and leaves other important areas of them in the shade. Their memory retains this information and provides feedback so that their focus continues to light up the pain.

These processes can generate and promote what’s known as the vicious circle of pain. When the sufferer attends to the pain and neglects other areas of their life, they intensify that pain, feel frustrated, and paralyze their life due to the discomfort they feel. This makes them focus even more on the pain and continue to neglect the rest of their life.

It’s hardly surprising that this vicious circle often ends up leading to depression. To avoid or reduce the intensity of the pain, it’s common for the sufferer to abandon certain activities; some of which may have been making a notable contribution to their well-being.

woman with depression
Chronic pain can lead to the development of depression.

Psychological help is a fundamental pillar of treatment

A multidisciplinary approach allows the problem to be attacked from several fronts. It means that different professionals can all contribute their individual knowledge to improve the sufferer’s quality of life. Thus, the patient benefits from the synergy of the wisdom of different professionals.

If you’re living with chronic pain, you shouldn’t constantly struggle against it, nor should it be a central condition of your life. Accepting that chronic pain is part of life (rather like that difficult colleague you have to share an office with) is, in many cases, the first step to reducing its influence.

You can’t choose whether you have pain or not, but you can decide how you want to deal with it. You can get angry and frustrated that it’s shown up unannounced, or you can accept its presence, understand how it affects your emotions, and change the aspects it influences in your day-to-day life.

Set some routines to better organize your time. Maintain an active life and perform functional exercises. Learn to manage and focus your attention. Increasing pleasurable activities that help you distract yourself from pain are some of the goals that you can work on in therapy. They’ll help you learn to live with chronic pain and its effects.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

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This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.