Chronic back pain–an affliction suffered by many police officers–can affect your brain.
According to researchers from Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, such chronic pain can cause premature aging by shrinking the brain’s gray matter as much as 11 per cent in one year, the equivalent of 10-20 years of normal aging, according to a recent report in the Journal of Neuroscience.
MRI scans show that people with unrelenting back pain for more than a year tend to experience brain atrophy that affects areas rich in the nerve cells that process information and memory. “The longer one lives with chronic pain, the more potential damage to the brain,” says lead researcher A. Vania Apkarian.
According to Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Research Center, more than two-thirds of officers taking early retirement because of disability complain of problems with lower-back pain. Abdominal obesity (the classic “Budweiser tumor”) combined with spinal stress from a duty belt and its equipment can contribute to this condition.
“If an officer is overweight and has weakened abdominal muscles, the spinal column simply doesn’t get the support it needs,” Lewinski says. “Chronic pain not only affects an officer’s mental and physical health and makes a productive career difficult but also puts an immense strain on family relationships.
“Losing weight and strengthening abdominal muscles can be a great antidote to back pain and to some extent can help correct damage done.”
New drugs also are being tested to treat chronic pain and stop premature aging. Meanwhile, Apkarian recommends that patients and physicians “aggressively treat” ailing backs with existing therapies “as early as possible.”