Scientists at Massachusetts General Hospital have, for the first time, identified key regions that become inflamed in the brains of patients suffering from chronic pain. The researchers hope a focus on these regions and glial cell activation, a kind of neuroinflammation, will allow development of better treatments for chronic pain patients.
“Demonstrating glial activation in chronic pain suggests that these cells may be a therapeutic target, and the consistency with which we found glial activation in chronic pain patients suggests that our results may be an important step towards developing biomarkers for pain conditions,” lead author Marco Loggia, of the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging, explained in the Harvard Gazette Jan. 12.
Animal studies have suggested a link between glial activation and chronic or persistent pain before, but this had not been previously shown in humans.
The study measured differences between 10 patients with chronic lower-back pain and nine pain-free control patients. Brain imaging techniques using an integrated PET/magnetic resonance scanner were then carried out, demonstrating a marked contrast of protein levels in the thalamus and other brain regions between the two groups.
The study, co-authored by Jacob Hooker and Bruce Rosen, has been published in the journal Brain and is available online. Grants funding the study were supplied by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences and the National Center for Research Resources.
The Challenges of Managing Chronic Pain
This study may provide hope to people suffering from chronic pain, which is often poorly managed by medical treatment, and also to doctors who struggle with how to treat those patients. The issue is becoming particularly pressing as study after study demonstrates the danger of doctors over-prescribing opiate painkillers.
“People in agonizing pain want it to stop, but opioids are often a poor long-term solution,” Daniel Pendick, executive editor of Harvard Men’s Health Watch and himself a lifelong back-pain patient, wrote for the Harvard Health Blog Jan. 15.
Pendick recommends that both doctors and patients approach such prescriptions with extreme caution, seeking out specialists and complementing traditional medical care with alternative treatments and counseling.