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Is My Pain Related to My (Lack of) Memory?

Last updated: September 2022

For a long time, I’ve wondered why my best friend remembers my childhood better than I do, why I get lost so easily and have to rely on the person I’m with to navigate, and why I’m a good test-taker but get frustrated with myself for not retaining as much as I want.

I’ve pondered these questions a lot over the years and, when I was in college, I started to have a feeling that my pain had something to do with it.

My history with memory issues

I had that thought because, in college, I had one of the worst flare-ups of my life and during that year, my grades suffered a lot. Then, in graduate school, I had my first surgery - the semester after the surgery, my grades went from straight A’s to straight B’s.

A couple of months ago, my bad memory made me look like a fool in front of a woman who is becoming a friend. I had been to her house for a party and met her husband a couple of years ago. Completely forgetting this, I re-introduced myself to him as if we had never met - because as far as I knew we hadn’t - and then listened to her tell me all about the fun time we had all had at her house.

It was a pretty depressing moment in my life because it suddenly hit me how many nice memories I’ve been robbed of.

The impact on executive functioning

This incident started me back on the path of wondering about whether rheumatoid arthritis and/or chronic pain play a role in this.

So, I hopped on Google Scholar to see what I could find. Sure enough, researchers are now finding that the pain of rheumatoid arthritis can decrease executive functioning which is defined as:1

The group of complex mental processes and cognitive abilities (such as working memory, impulse inhibition, and reasoning) that control the skills (such as organizing tasks, remembering details, managing time, and solving problems) required for goal-directed behavior.

Pain intensity and memory

It makes sense to me that being in pain requires a lot of brainpower, and can make it harder to keep attention on a task or to pay attention in a moment because this is what I’ve experienced in my life.

Paying attention to details outside your body can be hard when it is screaming in pain. The studies I read found that pain intensity was related to how much loss there was in things like working memory (the ability to retain a piece of information while you are doing something - i.e., getting directions and thinking about how to get to where you are going), long-term memory, and attention.2,3

Be gentle on yourself

Like many things related to living with rheumatoid arthritis, solutions are much harder to come by than problems. And, as far as I can tell, this is another example.

In some ways, this knowledge will help me to be less hard on myself when I forget something I did 5 minutes ago and will make me worry less about early Alzheimer’s. But I still don’t know if there is something I can do to make the situation better.

While I contemplate this, I’ll work on remembering the definition of executive functioning and maybe collect memories from my best friend so I can re-remember my life!

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