Imaging helps to measure patient pain

Researchers using functional magnetic resonance imaging believe they have developed a way to measure how much pain people are experiencing.

In a paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine, Tor D. Wager, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and colleagues reported that in four studies involving 114 participants, they developed a fMRI-based measure that predicts pain intensity in individuals.

In the first study, researchers tried to determine how much pain an individual was experiencing when exposed to heat. "We could measure fairly accurately how much pain a person is experiencing. It is between 90 and 100 percent accurate," Wager told National Public Radio.

The scans also could tell the difference between physical and emotional pain. In one study, subjects who recently had experienced a break-up in a personal relationship were scanned. While being scanned, they were shown pictures of the persons who had just broken up with them alongside pictures of people who were just friends; the scans then were compared to those taken while the subjects were exposed to heat.

"We tested our physical pain signature, our pattern, to see whether it was fooled into believing that the romantic rejection or social pain was like physical pain," Wager said. "[W]e found that it wasn't."

Another study determined whether a prescription painkiller had an impact on pain.

The researchers concluded that functional MRI can further help study and treat pain. "The hope is if we could peer into people's brains, we could understand that different kinds of pain are created by very different brain systems and we could tailor our treatments to those systems," Wager said.

To learn more:
- read the article in the New England Journal of Medicine
- read about the study on NPR

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