Back pain brings with it a host of problems — but brain damage? It’s quite possible that chronic back pain doesn’t just inflict agony, it also impairs cognitive function, and actually reduces grey matter, in certain parts of the brain. But a new study reports that alleviating the pain can reverse those brain changes.
In a longitudinal study published in May 2011 in the Journal of Neuroscience, a group of pain researchers from McGill University and the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC) followed a group of patients who underwent spinal injections or spinal surgery to alleviate their low back pain. MRI scans were conducted on each subject before and six months after their procedures. The scans measured the cortical thickness of the brain and brain activity while the subjects performed a simple cognitive task.
“When they came back in, we wanted to know whether their pain had lessened and whether their daily lives had improved,” said the study’s senior author, Laura S. Stone from McGill’s Alan Edwards Centre for Research on Pain. “We wanted to see if any of the pain-related abnormalities found initially in the brain had at least slowed down or been partially reversed.”
Not only did the team observe recovery in the anatomical function of the brain, but also in its ability to function. After the subjects were treated, researchers found increased cortical thickness in specific areas of the brain that were related to both pain reduction and physical disability. And the abnormal brain activity observed initially during an attention-demanding cognitive task was found to have normalized after treatment.
While more research would be needed to confirm whether chronic pain actually causes these changes in the brain, Stone hypothesizes that chronic low back pain, at the very least, maintains these differences: “If you can make the pain go away with effective treatment, you can reverse these abnormal changes in the brain.”
This research was funded by the Louise and Alan Edwards Foundation, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the International Association for the Study of Pain and the Fonds de la recherche en santé du Québec.