Chronic pain isn’t just a nag. It can make day-to-day life downright miserable.
It’s hard to focus on anything when you’re in pain. New research tells us why.
A recent study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, sheds some light on exactly what goes on in the brain while folks are in constant pain …
Can pain change the brain? If so, can the changes be reversed?
For this study, researchers recruited eighteen adult patients with chronic low back pain.
Before they were given treatment for their pain, each patient was subject to a functional MRI (fMRI).
A control group of sixteen healthy, pain-free participants was also given an fMRI.
Here’s what happened:
The first thing researchers noticed was that a prominent region in the frontal cortex – called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) – was thinner in the lower back pain group than that of the pain-free group.
Next, during the brain scan, participants were asked to perform a mental task. They had to pick out a visual target from other characters.
Both groups performed the task equally well. The major difference was that those in pain had several more brain regions that were activated, including the DLPFC.
Once the brain scan data was collected, the patients received treatment for their pain.
Six Months Later
Post-treatment, the majority of patients reported being pain free.
Researchers then gave each one a new fMRI to see what changes occurred in the brain, if any.
It turns out that the thickness of the DLPFC increased in EVERY patient who reported an improvement in his or her pain.
Then, when performing the same mental task from the first fMRI, these former pain patients showed a significant decrease in brain activation than they did while in pain.
In fact, their brain scans looked like those of the control group.
New Horizons in Pain Management?
I found this study to be very interesting for two reasons…
1. It shows us that healing the body also heals the mind (quite literally).
2. It begs the question… could a focus on changing the mind first (instead of the body through invasive surgery or drugs) eventually become the preferred method of treatment?
More research needs to be done, to be sure. I just hope it gets done quickly.
Chronic pain sufferers may be the most under serviced…and downright mistreated people being herded through the health care systems of the world.
And despite all the cutting-edge research being done, (for example, we now know that emotions have a large effect on how intensely you feel pain. As well, it’s proven that stress and anxiety can change the structure of your brain for the worse) it seems like the day where doctors will turn to the mind as the first and preferred option for pain management is still far away.