A new method using brain scans has been discovered by researchers to objectively measure the intensity of pain felt by those who suffer from chronic lower back pain in hopes to effectively provide individual treatment.
Researchers at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston found that during an MRI scan, a new imaging technique called arterial spin labeling can show areas of the brain in order to determine the scale of pain felt by patients with lower back pain.
"This study is a first step towards providing tools to objectively describe someone's chronic pain which is a subjective experience," said author Ajay Wasan, MD, MSc, of the Pain management Center in a press release. "We've found that when a patient has worsening of their usual pain, there are changes in the activity of the brain."
This new method of describing levels of pain will provide more accurate ways for doctors to assess pain in patients, rather than relying on the testimony of the patient which often times is inaccurately described. Eventually, more research will lead to the ability of doctors to customize treatment for pain in each patient, according to Wasam.
When blood flow to the brain increases causing high levels of neuron activity, patients who suffer from chronic lower back pain experience pain worsening in ration to the level of blood flow. The study using brain scans showed that the patients were experiencing increased levels of pain directly proportionate to the increasing brain activity.
The research was conducted using 32 people, half of which who had chronic low back pain and half who did not. The subjects underwent three MRI imaging sessions using arterial spin labeling, according to a press release. The first session was a control while the patients were in a relaxed position. The second session required that patients "exacerbate" their back pain by moving in ways mandated by the researchers. Heat was applied during the third round of imaging which matched the levels of pain in both test groups. Patients rated their pain based on a 1-10 scale after each session.
By using arterial spin labeling, the researchers were able to measure the amount of blood flow in order to definitely label the intensity of pain directly in relation to neural activity. Researchers hope that this will allow them to treat patients on an individual basis, reflecting methods of treatment based on an unbiased report of pain intensity.
"We are getting closer to describing, on an objective level, how the body and brain are reacting when a patient reports having more pain," said Wasan. "We are hopeful that this could lead to an understanding of an individual patient's neurocircuitry and that knowledge could lead to therapies that would be tailored to the individual."
Currently, back pain is the second most common neurological condition in the country, with over $50 billion spent each year on treatment, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
Wasam also said that more research will be conducted in the future to measure levels of pain using brain scans during and after treatment occurs.