We know that inflammation can be a cause of pain. But, is inflammation causing your depression, too? There are 100 million people in the US suffering from chronic pain. And, though they deal with it the best way they know how, so far, there doesn’t seem to be a complete cure. The same goes for depression.
The Doctor of Last Resorts
So far, doctors have been unable to cure the 21 million Americans who suffer from depression. Therapy and medication only do so much to help. It could be that the beginning of finding an effective cure for depression is to identify the root of the problem. And, one doctor believes the root of both chronic pain and depression is an overzealous immune reaction in the brain. Dr. Gary Kaplan, an osteopathic physician, is also known as the “Doctor of Last Resorts”. He believes that acupuncture and diet changes could reduce chronic inflammation which would reverse chronic pain, depression and a host of physical and psychological ailments.
The Underlying Problem
If the theory is correct, it may change how doctors deal with these stubborn cases. And, they may begin to treat the underlying problem —inflammation— rather than merely the symptoms. Kaplan says,
“Until now, our best options were to mask the symptoms—to give morphine to temporarily dull pain, for instance, or an antidepressant to modulate depression. For the first time in history, we are on the threshold of knowing how to cure them.”
Immune Response Gone Rogue
Scientists agree that chronic inflammation is caused when the immune response has gone rogue. When the body is cut or is subject to a virus, the immune system jumps into combat mode, rousing an army of white blood cells. This response may manifest itself in a swollen joint or wound. However, when inflammation happens inside the body, there are no visible signs.
White blood cells generally retreat when the threat has been taken care of. This is the normal, healthy reaction of white blood cells, also known as cytokines. It’s when they continue to multiply and attack long after the war is over that these virus-killing chemicals begin to cause damage. And inflammation. Chronic inflammation is dangerous. Cytokines build up in the bloodstream, causing plaque to jam your arteries, damaging tissue and possibly even causing tumor-growth.
Dr. Kaplan suspects that over-activity of microglia (immune cells in the brain) are responsible for chronic inflammation leading to depression and pain. Additionally, chronic inflammation in the brain is probably at the root of anxiety, fatigue and stress. Stress triggers inflammation and it can also bring on an increase in unhealthy vices such as smoking, alcohol use and binging. How does the body react to these irritants? It launches a prolonged immune response that hangs on for as long as the vices do.
Ideas Remain Theories
Unfortunately, brain-imaging tools are not yet sensitive enough to reveal inflammation. And, scientists say that the data is insufficient to bring about changes in the way patients are treated. Andrew H. Miller, MD, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University says,
“Hundreds of investigators have proposed that there’s a relationship between immune activity and symptoms like fatigue, pain, and depression, but, in terms of treatment, we’re not there yet. I believe there is a subgroup of depressed patients whose increased inflammation is causing their disease. But these ideas remain theories.”
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