Chronic Pain Is All In The Head -- Literally

By Amir Khan on July 2, 2012 7:58 AM EDT

Brain
Two people with similar injuries can heal very differently. One may go on to fully recover, while the other may develop chronic pain -- and for the first time, scientists are able to understand why, according to a new study. (Photo: REUTERS)

Two people with similar injuries can heal very differently. One may go on to fully recover, while the other may develop chronic pain -- and for the first time, scientists are able to understand why, according to a new study, published in the journal Nature Neuroscience on Sunday. 

Researchers said for people with chronic pain, it's all in their head.

"For the first time we can explain why people who may have the exact same initial pain either go on to recover or develop chronic pain," A. Vania Apakarian, study author and professor of physiology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, said in a statement.

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Researchers followed 40 patients diagnosed with new back pain. They conducted brain scans on the patients four times over the course of a year.

Researchers found that chronic pain develops in two areas of the brain related to motivation and emotional behavior. The more these two areas communicate, the more likely patients with new back injuries are to develop chronic pain.

"It may be that these sections of the brain are more excited to begin with in certain individuals, or there may be genetic and environmental influences that predispose these brain regions to interact at an excitable level," Apakarian said.

Chronic pain patients also lost gray matter, which could lead to fewer synaptic connections and make it more difficult for areas of the brain to communicate.

"Chronic pain is one of the most expensive health care conditions in the U. S. yet there still is not a scientifically validated therapy for this condition," Apkarian said.

Chronic back pain is the most common chronic pain condition, according to the study. Chronic pain costs over $600 billion annually, according to a 2011 National Academy of Sciences report.  

Apkarian said he will continue to research chronic pain and hopefully turn the results into a viable treatment.

"Now we hope to develop new therapies for treatment based on this finding," he said.

© 2012 iScience Times All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.

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