Chronic pain: a different approach inspired by noninvasive neuroimaging

Jul 25, 2022 | In Medicine

Chronic pain is a very common reason why patients go and see their family doctor or nurse practitioner. Not only does chronic pain create tremendous suffering for patients, but it’s also something that doctors struggle with treating effectively.

Dr. Maureen Allen is a physician from Antigonish, Nova Scotia. In my most recent CFP podcast, I interview Dr. Allen about how we can best help patients with chronic pain. In particular, we talk about viewing chronic pain in a different way, one that is inspired by non-invasive neuroimaging.

Non-invasive neuroimaging involves using scans like functional MRIs and PET scans to measure brain activity. With these techniques, we can tell which parts of the brain are more active than others. Studies have shown that there are differences in which parts of the brain ‘light up’ when it comes to acute versus chronic pain. With chronic pain, emotional centres in the brain are more active than when compared with acute pain. Emotional centres include areas like the limbic system and the amygdala. These studies provide more evidence that there is a strong connection between pain and emotional / mental health.

These research findings are important because patients who live with chronic pain sometimes feel that others don’t believe that their pain is real. Using a non-invasive neuroimaging approach doesn’t mean that we need to order these types of tests on anyone with chronic pain. It also doesn’t mean that chronic pain is only due to emotional factors. It’s just one part of the equation. Rather, these studies show that there are objective findings associated with a patient’s pain. This new research can help us validate that a patient’s pain is real, and it may even help guide therapy. Viewing chronic pain in a way that is inspired by non-invasive neuro-imaging will have benefits for patients and health care providers alike.

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