The experiment, led by Professor Vania Apakarian of Northwestern University in Chicago, involved scanning the brains of 40 volunteers who had experienced back pain for one to four months.
Four MRI scans were taken from each volunteer over the course of one year.
Prof Apakarian said: ‘The injury itself is not enough to explain the on-going pain. It has to do with the injury combined with the state of the brain.”
Indeed, the results showed that if the brain reacted emotionally to the initial injury, the pain was more likely to persist long after the injury itself had healed.
The scans highlighted strong interaction between two different regions of the brain – the frontal cortex and the nucleus accumbens. The nucleus accumbens is thought to teach the rest of the brain how to react to the outside world, suggesting that it may be using the pain signal to teach other parts of the brain to develop chronic pain.
Prof Apakarian believes that some individuals with chronic pain may naturally have more activity in these sections than others.
This information has given scientists the ability to predict whether a patient will develop chronic pain from their injury – a prediction that has an 85% rate of accuracy.
Prof Apakarian hopes to use this information to develop new treatments for chronic pain.
To explore treatments available for treating and managing chronic pain, please visit our Therapy Topics page.
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