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Pain on the Brain: How Doctors Will Soon Be Able to Measure Your Pain Through Brain Scans

Posted on 3rd Sep 2011 @ 5:38 PM


For people who have been dealing with chronic pain for a long time (and non-medical treatments, like ergonomic chairs, haven’t helped), there is one question that has been burned into their brains: "On a scale of 1 to 10, how severe is the pain?" If that’s you, then listen up.

These days, that question is the closest thing to an objective scale that health care professionals can use to gauge how much patients are hurting (and how much their treatment methods are helping). Of course, that technique doesn't work well on a macro scale; one person's "8 pain" may be another's "3."

What if there were a way to objectively measure pain levels across all patients?

That may be possible one day, thanks in large part to researchers at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women's Hospital. They have identified a promising new method of measuring pain using brain scans. When chronic pain patients underwent an MRI, and a technique called arterial spin labeling was performed, doctors were able to view blood flow patterns in various areas of the brain.

The study involved 32 patients made up of a control group and a collection of patients who had been suffering from chronic lower back pain or a similar ailment for at least five years. While an MRI recorded data, the test subjects performed stretches that were designed to induce pain. Researchers noted that stimuli were processed differently in the brains of chronic pain sufferers than they were in healthy patients - and these differences were observed as variances in cranial blood flow patterns on the images.

The hope is that one day, these changes in blood flow could be accurately quantified to the point where they can determine the efficacy (or lack thereof) of various medications, physical therapy plans, or other pain management regimens. Ideally, physicians could develop objectively-measured treatment schedules that can be applied across some or all patients (for instance, a 500mg dose of Vicodin over a seven-day period reduces lower back pain by 50% in patients over 50 years of age).

But such objectivity in pain management outcomes is at least several years away. Researchers admit that they have a lot of work to do before doctors can just put people into scanning machines, measure their pain, and prescribe the corresponding treatment. However, the study has shown that on a neurological level, chronic pain affects an individual differently than acute pain does. That in itself may help health care practitioners to respond better to the needs and challenges facing their patients who deal with pain on a daily basis.

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