Pain and suffering is often difficult to measure, even by the most experienced pain specialists. Patients are typically asked to rate their own pain on a scale of 1-10. Although there are objective ways to confirm physical and psychological injuries consistent with pain, the nature and extent of pain is typically measured by the patient’s own subjective self-reporting.
A new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine finds that brain imaging can be used to objectively assess pain — both physical and emotional pain.
The study involved a total of 114 patients who underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) — a unique and new form of neuroimaging — while being stimulated with heat-induced pain, as well as “social pain.”
What is Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI)?
fMRI is a relatively new form of neuroimaging used to measure brain activity by detecting changes in blood flow that occur in response to certain stimuli. fMRI can identify the parts of the brain that are involved in certain mental processes.
fMRI use is controversial, because it is a relatively new neruoimaging technique. However, fMRI can be extremely beneficial to identifying a brain injury in patients who are symptomatic of neurologic dysfunction, yet have “normal” brain scans using typical imaging techniques.
As the above-mentioned study demonstrates, fMRI can also be extremely helpful in identifying pain.
fMRI to Identify Physical and Emotional Pain
The study found that in those patients who were subjected to heat-induced pain while being imaged with fMRI, a “nerologic signature” emerged: increased brain activity in the thalamus, posterior and anterior insulae, secondary somatosensory cortex, anterior cingulate cortex, periaqueductal gray matter, and other regions of the brain.
Even more interesting, the study found that fMRI was helpful in identifying emotional-related pain — related to depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or other events that cause emotional pain. When subjecting such patients to “social pain,” the fMRI showed that many of the same brain regions were activated as with physical pain.
In general, the study found fMRI to be over 90% sensitive (or accurate) in identifying physical and emotional pain.
This is a huge breakthrough for pain research and treatment for those with chronic and acute pain — both physical and emotional. Based on this research, new treatment may be developed to focus on these specific areas of the brain that are triggered, rather than on the conventional approach to attempting to block pain impulses from getting into the spinal cord and the brain.
At Passen & Powell, most of our clients have experienced significant pain — both physical and emotional — as a result of serious motor vehicle accidents, medical malpractice, and other contexts which produce pain. We welcome these new developments addressed at identifying pain, and hopefully leading to beneficial treatment for pain.
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