Glial Cells and Chronic Pain Care

Learn about the physiology of pain, what glial cells are, how they affect pain, and what you can do to treat your chronic pain

By 
Alissa Lin, MPH
Reviewed by 
Abigail Hirsch, Ph.D.
January 18, 2022
6
 min. read

Feeling pain is a normal part of life. It’s that uncomfortable feeling that tells you something is categorically wrong. There are many different ways to describe pain: lingering, intermittent, aching, jabbing, throbbing, mild, intense, acute, and sadly, chronic. 

Pain of any type can cause physical symptoms like tiredness, dizziness, nausea, weakness and manifest emotionally in irritability, anger, anxiety, depression, and mood swings. Unmanaged pain can interfere with your life, impacting your physical and mental health, job, and relationships.

Those living with acute pain tend to feel pain for shorter periods. The level of pain is often classified as severe, but on the upside, it’s short-lived. On the other hand, chronic pain ranges from mild to debilitating and sticks around for extended periods (more than three months). Chronic pain may be the result of a disease, injury, or illness, and in some instances, may not be related to a specific reason at all. Unexplained pain is often the most frustrating. 

New studies suggest glial cells are “implicated in the onset or maintenance of multiple pain types and in the chronification of accurate pain to chronic pain”. They play a role in the progression from acute to chronic pain. These cells can affect pain management treatments (opioids especially) by releasing substances that lessen the effects of the relief therapy.

Keep reading to learn about the physiology of pain, what glial cells are, how they affect pain, and what you can do to treat your chronic pain.

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Physiology of Pain

Feeling pain is an integral part of survival. It’s our body’s way of bringing attention to some issue that needs addressing. 

How does pain work? In simple terms, pain occurs when our body’s sensory receptors signal our brain to experience a specific type of pain. These signals are sent through the body’s nervous system. 

For example, pain is sensed, a nerve impulse moves from the sensory nerve to the spinal cord, and it gets transported to the brain through nerve pathways in the spinal cord and brainstem. As soon as the brain processes the sensation of pain, it quickly sends a motor response to stop the action that’s causing the pain.

Noxious stimuli (the condition causing the pain reaction) can be mechanical, chemical (inflammatory), or thermal. We’re going to unpack each of these types of pain below. 

Mechanical Origin

Mechanical pain is a general term that refers to pain caused by stress or strain on bones, discs, or nerves in the spine. Pain of a mechanical origin can stem from an injury, acute trauma, or overuse (whiplash, tennis elbow, carpal tunnel). This type of pain occurs when excess strain is put on bones, nerves, or spinal discs. Mechanical pain can be lingering, intermittent, or variable and tends to change depending on your positioning, i.e, whether you bend, stand, sit, or move in specific ways. Instability or imbalance of the musculoskeletal systems in the hip, back, or core can also lead to mechanical pain. 

Chemical Origin

Unlike mechanical pain, chemical pain is not specific to a particular movement. Also known as inflammatory origin, chemical pain is often linked to inflammatory disorders, where the immune system attacks the body’s tissues or cells. A well-known example of an inflammatory condition is arthritis. 

Pain resulting from a chemical origin usually lingers but can sometimes be relieved by repositioning, engaging in moderate movement, physiotherapy, and rest. Medications are a popular treatment, but pain that stems from a chemical origin does not typically subside until the chemical reaction or initial inflammation is addressed.

Thermal Origin

Pain from a thermal origin is caused by exposure to extreme cold or heat (frostbite or burns). 

What are Glial Cells?

Glial cells, also called neuroglia, are non-neuronal cells found in the central and peripheral nervous systems. We used to think these cells only played a mild, supportive role for neurons. They provide neurons with the metabolic and physical support they need for neuronal communication and insulation and the transportation of nutrients and waste. 

How Glial Cells Affect Chronic Pain

New studies show that glial cells are active in many neurological processes and may be the missing link in the physiology of pain. Glial cells play an active part in the onset and maintenance of pain because they disperse neuroactive substances that disturb and heighten neuronal reactions, manifesting into acute or chronic pain. 

Could Glial Cells Be Botching Your Pain Management?

It’s possible! Glia can force an otherwise healthy pain network into an unregulated mess. 

The result?  

When the body continuously sends unwarranted and damaging pain signals, there’s no chance for pain relief. Instead of being a warning of impending harm, the pain itself becomes the source of the pain experience, leading to a vicious cycle. A Stanford pain researcher, Eliot Krane says the pain “becomes its own disease.” 

Because glial cells play a part in directing pain signals, it can have enormous consequences for chronic pain. Painkillers don’t target glia. They only target neurons, so if painkillers don’t seem to help with your pain, there may be a problem within your glial cells. 

When pain signals reach the peripheral to central nervous system intersection, a plethora of glia take over the regulation of pain signals. They either increase or decrease the pain signals’ strength or the length of time the pain will last. At this stage, something can go wrong with the glia, resulting in chronic pain. 

Recent studies show that chronic pain occurs when the glia pushes the pain signals into a never-ending inflammatory loop—causing the surrounding nerves to send out a continuous cry for help. 

Chronic Pain Treatment

After an accident, normal pain can last from days to weeks and gradually subside. But when there’s a fault in the glia’s regulatory system, the body will continue releasing pain signals, even after the tissues have healed. Unfortunately, these pain signals can spread, causing even more pain—and kick off an overwhelming chronic pain cycle. 

There is no treatment for glial cell failure at this point. The cause is unknown for why or how things go wrong with these cells. The mismanagement can develop after an injury or just seemingly “out of nowhere.”

But there is hope for healing chronic pain using an integrative, holistic approach. At Lin Health, we focus on all the things that may be contributing to your pain. Then we create a customized treatment plan to help you make real improvements in your pain levels and overall function. 

If your pain is affecting your mental health, sleep patterns, moods, or relationships, it’s time to take back control of your pain. The Lin approach has been scientifically proven to be six times more effective than standard treatments for chronic pain.  

Start now with Lin Health.

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