Understanding Pain and the Gut-Brain Cross-Talk

an older man touches his side while a doctor looks at the area

Recent discoveries reveal that the gut has a mind of its own—the enteric nervous system—where, just like the brain, millions of neurotransmitters send and receive impulses, record experiences and respond to emotions. The gut can upset the brain just as the brain can upset the gut. This finding brings new hope for a more holistic understanding and treatment of pain from complex problems like Celiac disease, irritable bowel syndrome, and even anorexia nervosa.

In collaboration with the European Biomedical Research Institute of Salerno and colleagues at Harvard’s Massachusetts General Hospital, the Institute convened an international gathering of thought leaders from the biomedical and integrative medicine communities to explore new understandings of this mind-body connection.

Up to now, management of chronic abdominal pain from gastrointestinal disorders as well as psychological/behavioral disturbances has mainly focused on treatment of the underlying disease. Very little has been done to gain more insight on the genesis of pain resulting from brain-gut cross-talk and how to alleviate it.

“This topic is incredibly important because not enough has been done to address the pain that’s caused by brain-gut interactions,” said Institute President Brian Berman, who is co-chaired the symposium with Ron Kleinman, physician-in-chief of MassGeneral Hospital for Children. “There are people suffering from a wide range of related conditions who could benefit from integrative therapies. This symposium was a critical step toward giving them some relief.”

This unique forum encouraged an open, mutually-respectful dialogue recognizing that just as understanding of the roots of disease is changing, so too is the approach to disease management.  Through scientific and clinical case presentations, participants discussed future approaches to managing pain that are patient-centered, team-based, and utilize the best of conventional and integrative therapies.

Read the publication resulting from this forum in Global Advances in Health and Medicine.