Cognition and Pain: What’s the Connection?

Covering the Basics

Chances are, you probably know the definitions of terms such as cognition and pain, and if you don’t, you have definitely experienced both of these terms throughout the course of your life. Cognition is essentially your brain’s ability to think and acquire knowledge – including actions such as learning through sensory input, memory, perception, and problem solving. Pain is a physical discomfort within your body, typically due to an illness or injury. It seems like a no-brainer: of course if cognition is your brain’s ability to think, there would be a connection when your body is in pain, as it is your brain that tells you when a part of your body is hurting. However, the effect of pain on cognition runs a lot deeper than simply being aware that you have discomfort in your body.

So, What’s the Deeper Connection?

A large majority of individuals who suffer from pain on a regular basis may not be aware of the extent to which their cognitive abilities are effected by this pain.  Chronic or prolonged pain can negatively affect mental health – studies have found that individuals who suffer from chronic pain are three times more likely to develop a mood disorder, such as depression (Thompson, 2010). Furthermore, it has been reported that approximately one third of people who experience persistent pain also suffer from clinical depression (2010). Depression has been shown to have a direct link to cognitive impairment – specifically affecting an individual’s ability to concentrate, to learn and retain information, and to make decisions (Robin, 2016).

Individuals who suffer from chronic pain are often prescribed medication for their pain in the form of opioids. While this medication is initially helpful in pain relief, opioids are classified as narcotics, and as such run the risk of being abused and can become dangerous. Individuals who take opioids for their pain are at risk of addiction, and potentially may be caused more harm after prolonged use (Medline, 2011). Opioid use negatively affects cognitive function, as it slows reaction times and decreases attention span, memory capabilities and judgment abilities (2011).

Aside from the medication or co-morbidity influences that connect pain to cognition, there is usually a connection between the two without factoring in opioid use and mental health issues. Evidence supports that your mind and body are always influencing one another, and one cannot be fully functioning without the other (Cherkin, 2018). It is important to acknowledge how the lowered function of these two symptoms affect an employee in the performance of their work.

What Employers Should Know

There are many different actions an employer can take to ensure the well-being of their employees, including:

  • Engaging in preventative measures to reduce the risk of injury in the workplace – have a health and safety plan.
  • Keep your employees informed – give your employees the information they need regarding pain and injury risk.
  • Look into Ergonomics for your workplace – how can you adjust your work and work tools to be best suited for employees.
  • Use Accommodations when necessary for your employees who may suffer from chronic pain.
  • Take action to ensure the Mental Well-being of your employees is a priority – there is evidence that depression can cause physical pain, resulting in a vicious cycle (Thompson, 2010).

Remember – your employees work best when their health and safety is a priority!

What Can You Do To Alleviate Pain

There are several different options to help individuals manage pain and increase cognitive function. These include:

  • Ensuring your workstation is ergonomically sound – having a workstation that fits your stature and abilities will be comfortable and allow you to be more productive without flaring the pain.
  • Engage in Cognitive Mind-Body Therapies – there is strong evidence to support that yoga, cognitive-based therapies and acupuncture decrease pain and improve cognitive function with consistent use (Cherkin, 2018).
  • Avoid the overuse of pain killers – always follow prescriptions properly and be aware of potential side affects of prescription pill use.
  • Build your activity levels gradually – often individuals who suffer from chronic pain stop engaging in physical activity, which results in more pain – staying active on a regular basis has been shown to have immediate and long-term benefits for chronic pain patients (Doyle, 2008).

Gowan Consulting has a large variety of options to ensure your business is healthy and safe for your employees. We ensure your business and employees are equipped to excel through the use of injury prevention and risk minimization. Our Occupational Therapists can complete a variety of assessments of your employee’s abilities (such as functional cognitive assessments, pain management assessments and ergonomics) and your work environment to maximize function at work and minimize risk for injury and chronic pain. Occupational Therapists work collaboratively with your workplace parties to support an employee who is returning to work or staying at work with physical, emotional, cognitive and workplace performance concerns. For more information regarding our workplace solutions, or to book an assessment, contact us.


Works Cited

Cherkin, D.C. & Herman, P.M. (2018). Cognitive and mind-body therapies for chronic low back pain and neck pain. American Medical Association.

Doyle, S. (2008). Modest exercise helps chronic pain patients. Medscape Medical News.

Medline Plus. (2011, April). Opioids and chronic pain. Medline Plus, 6 (1), 9. Retrieved from 

Rubin, E. (2016, June 8) Psychology Today. Cognitive impairment in depression. Retrieved from

Thompson, D. (2010, March 4). Everyday Health. The link between pain and depression. Retrieved from 

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