An exciting study reported in the latest issue of Nature Neuroscience from the laboratory of Dr. Marwan Baliki at Northwestern University in Chicago casts light on the changes that occur in the brain when acute pain becomes chronic. The study strongly suggests that subjects’ emotional responses to acute pain play an important role in predicting these changes in the brain. Subjects who are more distressed about their acute pain not only tend to go on to develop chronic pain but their distress actually caused changes in the brain that were observed on brain scans. To my knowledge, this is the first time we have actual observations of the changes our attitude and feelings can cause in the brain over time that can lead to the development of a chronic pain problem.
Dr. Baliki and his colleagues took brain scans of subjects with acute back pain. They also measured pain intensity and the level of distress the subjects were experiencing. These data were obtained 4 times over the course of one year. During this time, some subjects experienced a resolution of their back pain whereas others continued to experience significant back pain which by the one year mark, had become chronic.