Chronic pain patients often complain of their “poor memory” and numerous studies objectively confirmed such difficulties in reporting working memory (WM) and long-term memory (LTM) dysfunctions. This paper provides a comprehensive review of the literature on memory impairment in chronic pain (CP) patients.
Twenty-four observational studies evaluating WM or/and LTM in a chronic pain group and a control group were included in this review.
Results showed that studies consistently reported a moderate decline, in both WM and LTM performances in CP patients. Even if CP patients complained about forgetfulness, objective measurements did not permit to conclude to a long-term storage impairment. CP patients exhibited more specifically encoding or retrieving difficulties compared to controls. Results showed that chronic pain selectively impacted the most attention-demanding memory processes, such as working memory and recollection in long-term memory. Results also demonstrated that CP patients exhibited a memory bias directed towards painful events compared to control subjects. Several authors have suggested that CP could be a maladaptive consequence of memory mechanisms. The long-lasting presence of pain continuously reinforces aversive emotional associations with incidental events. The inability to extinguish this painful memory trace could explain the chronic persistence of pain even when the original injury has disappeared. A major concern is the need to extricate pain-related cognitive effects from those resulting from all the co-morbidities associated with CP which both have a deleterious effect on cognitive function.