Study Develops Revolutionary Brain Scan for Physical Pain

If chronic pain is affecting your wellbeing, your doctor may be able to measure it objectively, as well as whether or not the medications you’re on are doing anything to improve your wellness. This is according to a provocative new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, which has found a way to “see” pain on brain scans and, for the first time, measure its intensity and tell whether a drug was relieving it. Yes, this research is in its early stages, but it still opens the door to a host of possibilities.

This is big news for patients whose mental health has been affected by dementia, babies, or paralysed patient who are unable to talk, as someday doctors can use scans to determine their pain level. The new discovery may also lead to new, less addictive pain medicines, and might even help verify claims for disability. According to Tor Wager, a neuroscientist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, who lead the study, ‘Many people suffer from chronic pain and they’re not always believed. We see this as a way to confirm or corroborate pain if there is a doubt.’

So far, the study’s findings can only be applied to types pain felt through the skin, such as direct external heat, and so further research is needed on more common kinds of pain, such as headaches, bad backs and pain from disease. Individual wellness experts have commented that pain is one of life’s most subjective experiences, and so any potential way to measure pain objectively is crucial. Other than what you tell your doctor, there’s no other way for him or her to quantify how bad the pain is, and the way you describe a certain level of pain may be completely different to how another patient would.

Dr David Shurtleff, acting deputy director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which helped sponsor the research, commented, ‘This is very exciting work. They made a huge breakthrough in thinking about brain patterns. We need a brain-based signature for pain. Self-report doesn’t cut it. It’s not reliable, it’s not accurate.’

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