- Understanding the Immune System
- When the Immune System is Weakened
- Joint Pain and the Immune System
- Managing the Immune System
- Complexity of Pain
The immune system is a complex network in the body that is designed to defend the body against infection or attached by threatening pathogens. It is like a recorder in that it keeps a record of the microbes the body has been exposed to, so it can destroy the microbes should they attack again. Pain is a physical response to a condition in the body, and people wonder if chronic pain weakens the immune system, making it less likely it can work efficiently and keep unwanted microbes away.
Understanding the Immune System
The immune system is one of the most referred to and most misunderstand systems in the body. People say, “I have a compromised immune system, but what does that mean?”
The immune system is made up of two systems that work together to accomplish two main purposes. The innate immune system recognizes bacteria, viruses, and other microbes and immediately responds. The adaptive immune system is acquired, and that is where the pain comes in. The adaptive system responds to microbes, but it also responds to other attacks, like an injury.
Chronic pain is due to some type of injury, but an injury, in this case, means some physical issue exists due to disease or trauma. Arm pain due to joint arthritis or spinal disc degeneration are “injuries” to the immune system. They are not due to a virus or bacteria or parasites, but they are injuries that trigger the immune system.
When the Immune System is Weakened
Understanding what weakens the immune system is important because the knowledge drives the appropriate responses. They include things like:
- Lack of regular adequate sleep
- Unrelenting stress and worry
- Medications, especially for conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, allergies, and lupus
- Poor diet that discourages white blood cell production
- Chronic pain
Chronic pain negatively impacts the immune system because research shows it may lead to a reprogramming of the immune system genes. Immune system disorders include:
- Immunodeficiencies – immune system does not function properly due to something like obesity, age, poor nutrition or a disease like HIV
- Autoimmunity – the immune system turns on the body, targeting healthy cells, rather than foreign pathogens, due to an autoimmune disease like rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes, and celiac disease
- Hypersensitivity – the immune system overreacts and damages healthy tissues, like during an anaphylactic shock event
Joint Pain and the Immune System
Chronic pain can impact immune functioning. Though it is not fully understood, a study at Mcgill University showed that chronic pain may change the way immune system genes work. Chronic pain seems to lead to changes in the DNA that is marked in T cells. The T cells are major components of the adaptive immune system.
Using arm pain as an example, you may develop an autoimmune disease like rheumatoid arthritis. Your shoulder, arm, and/or wrist joints experience inflammation, leading to ongoing pain episodes. What is really happening is the immune system is attacking the joint lining, inflaming the joint and causing pain and stiffness. The immune system and joint pain are closely connected in this case.
In some cases, chronic pain due to other diseases and medical conditions also involves the immune system, like fibromyalgia and osteoarthritis. The immune system responds to the pain and releases autoantibodies, cytokines, chemokines, or other inflammatory substances.
Managing the Immune System
Chronic pain often triggers general stress. The stress response is a combination of endocrine, neurologic, and immune system responses all happening at the same time. The body’s activation of these systems is meant to help the body cope with the threat. When pain endures for a long period of time, the hormone cortisol rises and stays elevated, and the immune system is overworked.
There is a connection between pain and the immune system, though the effects of pain on the immune system is not fully understood. Medical researchers are continuing to study the relationship. However, there are steps you can take to minimize problems with the immune system. For example, quit smoking, get regular sleep, eat a healthy diet, and follow a physician’s treatment plan for medical conditions like arthritis.
Complexity of Pain
Some people want to know how to be immune to pain. Some research has found that people may be able to change the way their brain manages pain. Medical researchers have found that experiencing pain is a complex process involving the spine, limbic system (section of the brain involved in emotional responses), immune system, and psychosocial factors.
When you have a backache or your arm joints hurt, the body is very active.