How Neuroinflammation Causes Chronic Pain

Barby Ingle, Columnist

What is neuroinflammation and why does it cause severe burning pain even when there seems to be no injury?

Let me explain it as simply as I can. Say you sprain your ankle. Your ankle then hurts, swells, discolors, and the pain limits use. The swelling occurs because of “healing” chemicals that move into the affected area and work to repair any damage.

In a typical person, this process is successful and the healing chemicals trigger another set of chemicals to take the healing chemicals away. The swelling and discoloration go away and the person doesn’t have any additional issues healing from that trauma.

But sometimes the healing process doesn’t work correctly and the neuroinflammation becomes chronic, activating glial cells in our spine and brain. This poor healing process changes your spine and brain in ways that essentially leave your pain signals turned on.  

Glial cells are small nerve cell that fire off about every two minutes looking for any threats to the body. This is part of your fight or flight system. They are non-neuronal cells that maintain homeostasis, form myelin, and provide support and protection for the brain's neurons. Glia is a Greek word meaning glue.

In the human brain, there is roughly one glia for every neuron, with a ratio of about two neurons for every three glia in the cerebral gray matter, according to the research article, Equal Numbers of Neuronal and Nonneuronal Cells Make the Human Brain an Isometrically Scaled-Up Primate Brain.”



The four main functions of glial cells are to surround neurons and hold them in place; supply nutrients and oxygen to neurons; insulate one neuron from another; and to destroy pathogens and remove dead neurons. They also modulate neurotransmission, according to the “D-amino acids in the brain: d-serine in neurotransmission and neurodegeneration" research paper. Therefore, glia is a lot more than just the “glue” of the nervous system.

Why should we pay attention to glia activated neuroinflammation? There needs to be much more research into this area and ways to control glial activation. What else activates glia? What deactivates it?

At a medical conference in 2008, I learned how neuroinflammation primes the nervous system in chronic pain patients. Let’s say that someone slaps you unexpectedly. Your body reacts with a fight or flight response. Then down the road a few months, maybe a year, someone slaps you again. Now your fight or flight response is on guard. Instead of firing every two minutes or so, the glial are on full time. This is a signal to your healing process that something is wrong. Your body wants to be ready to protect you in case you are slapped again.

The second “slap” can be any kind of any trauma: a torn ligament, broken bone or even a paper cut. It can be just as big or even smaller than the first slap. The first slap causes the priming, the second one confirms the risk (even if there is none), and now the body’s protection system is “on” just in case.

Looking at my case, I had a tear in two of my knee ligaments in 2001 and underwent surgery. I bounced back in a very short time and continued on with my athletic activities as a head Division IA collegiate cheerleading and dance coach.

About a year later, I was in a minor auto accident and had a brachia plexus injury which devastated my life. The harder I fought it, the worse I got physically. Was it priming? Was I exposed to something that set off the neuroinflammation process?

Fortunately, years later I was able to deactivate my glia and go into remission because of infusion therapy. That helped me to understand the importance of controlling glia activation and neuroinflammation.

I hope by sharing my story it starts more conversations to get medical practices to catch up to the science that already exists. Is deactivating the glia a cure? No, but it does go a long way in assisting with chronic pain management.

It got me from wheels to walking. And now that I am walking, I will keep talking until more lives are changed for the better. 

Barby Ingle suffers from Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSD) and endometriosis. Barby is a chronic pain educator, patient advocate, and president of the International Pain FoundationShe is also a motivational speaker and best-selling author on pain topics.

More information about Barby can be found at her website.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.