Disruption of Attention and Memory related to Pain


There is a relationship between person’s chronic pain and person’s attention and memory. High level of pain interferes attentional processes during the completion of demanding tasks. Pain also greatly affects as well as person’s memory. Chronic pain disrupts attention, and earlier studies provided evidence that it negatively affects mental health and the ability to perform everyday tasks.

A study was conducted using computerized tests of memory to subjects with chronic pain along with a neuropsychological test of attention before and after procedures resulting in analgesia. As for the results which were independent of age, education level, sleep disruption, and pain relief, two-thirds of subjects with chronic pain got scores in clinically impaired range on attentional tasks. The researchers took consideration of subjects’ medication use which is also recorded and reported to account for potential effects of medication on task performance. Their study showed that there is a strong evidence that performance on neuropsychological tests is neither not affected nor improved in individuals who are prescribed opioids for their chronic pain despite of the long term use of analgesics.  Those participants with the highest level of impairment had significantly greater difficulties in maintaining a memory trace during a challenging test of working memory. Although their findings shows that specific cognitive mechanism and maintenance of memory trace is affected by chronic pain during a task performance, cognitive function was not improved by short-term analgesia.

There is a lack of research and studies as to which cognitive mechanisms specifically are interrupted by chronic pain despite of the results of the study showed that chronic pain disrupts attention. Their research proved that the specific cognitive process that appears to be disrupted by chronic pain is the working memory trace.

If we can better understand which cognitive mechanisms are disrupted by chronic pain and how they are disrupted, we can continue to move toward improving our ability to predict which individuals are most at risk for cognitive disruption by chronic pain and tailor their treatment accordingly.


Dick, B. D., & Rashiq, S. (2007). Disruption of Attention and Working Memory Traces in Individuals with Chronic Pain. Anesthesia & Analgesia, 104(5), 1223-1229. doi:10.1213/01.ane.0000263280.49786.f5

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