How does chronic pain affect the immune system?
According to research by McGill University, chronic pain may reprogram how genes work in the body by changing how DNA is marked in T cells. These white blood cells are an essential part of the immune system and help orchestrate our body’s response to foreign substances (antigens).
When the DNA is marked differently, this may affect the cells’ ability to identify and fight off antigens, which can in turn lead to a suppressed immune system and leave the body more susceptible to viral infections.
Chronic pain can also trigger stress responses in the body, which causes a rise in cortisol levels. Over a prolonged period of time, research shows that higher cortisol levels can result in a decline in immune system function.
These effects are challenging for residential aged care facilities for multiple reasons. In the UK, around 70% of care home residents live with a form of dementia. Of those, 60-70% people regularly experience pain. In total, across the UK care homes, this impacts nearly 300,000 people.
The majority of these patients experience chronic pain but aren’t always able to articulate it—making it difficult for carers to prescribe accurate and effective pain management treatment. As a result, these patients may be constantly experiencing pain that goes unchecked or untreated, leaving them at higher risk of contracting infections.