How Does Pain Affect Learning?

Both acute pain and chronic pain can have an effect on learning new things in educational settings, work settings and even at home.

Moderate to severe pain of an acute nature is distracting and may stop someone from performing their daily functions. For example, a migraine headache is sometimes so bad that a person can not concentrate on what they are supposed to be doing and they have to go rest in bed. However, even mild pain, such as a muscle cramp, can be so distracting to us that we need to take over-the-counter medication to be able to focus or sleep.

The reason that acute pain is distracting to us and decreases our ability to focus is that pain is a physiological response that is designed to get our attention. If we could ignore pain, it wouldn’t be painful. Pain is necessary to alert us that something is wrong with our body or that we should stop doing something that is hurting us, but sometimes we experience pain that serves no function. This is especially true with certain types of chronic pain, such as fibromyalgia, in which the body’s pain response is abnormal. We know that pain evolved as a useful physiological function because some people have a rare condition in which they cannot sense pain, called congenital sensitivity to pain with anhidrosis (CIPA). These individuals never have to experience pain, but without pain to guide them, they can end up seriously injuring themselves without knowing. These individuals are extremely prone to burns, cuts, scrapes, infected wounds and so on.

So while pain sometimes serves to help us survive, it can torture some people. Chronic pain not only causes physiological problems, but is also tied to substance abuse and psychological problems like depression and anxiety. Chronic pain can cause someone to be less mobile, which leads to a sense of dependence on others. Another big problem involved with chronic pain is sleep disturbances. All of these psychological factors come together to negatively influence motivation and ability to learn.

For one aspect of how pain can affect learning, let us look at sleep. Pain, chronic or acute, can be a major cause of sleep disturbances, such as not sleeping as much or not sleeping soundly. A person with pain may keep waking up during the night and not be able to go back to sleep, for example. A person who becomes sleep deprived has a decreased ability to focus. If a person has pain during their waking hours as well, this can also affect ability to focus, so these people have less ability to take in new information due to pain and sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation also affects memory, so the information that is taken in is less likely to be retained in a sleep-deprived person than one who gets enough sleep.

Depression can also decrease the motivation to learn new things, as well as affect sleep patterns. Some people who are depressed sleep more than usual, but insomnia is also more common among depressed people. Anxiety has an effect on learning as well because it can disrupt focus. Pain is tied to all kinds of psychological factors that all have a negative effect on learning. A person with frequent or chronic pain may begin to do poorly in school or at work, which increases the negative psychological effects of pain. Developing a pain management plan with a doctor is important because proper treatment can help disrupt this cycle. Most chronic pain conditions are difficult to treat, but they can be managed.


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