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Back pain therapy renews brain function

MCGILL (CAN) — Easing chronic lower back pain reverses abnormal brain activity and function that often accompanies it.

Adults who are victims of back pain also experience cognitive impairments and reduced gray matter in parts of the brain associated with pain’s emotional components, like depression and anxiety.

For a new study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers recruited patients who had reported low back pain for more than six months and who planned on undergoing spinal injections or spinal surgery ¬ to alleviate their pain.

MRI scans were conducted on each subject before and six months after their procedures. The scans measured the cortical thickness of the brain and brain activity when the subjects where asked to perform a simple cognitive task.

“When they came back in, we wanted to know whether their pain had lessened and whether their daily lives had improved,” says senior author Laura S. Stone of McGill University.

“We wanted to see if any of the pain-related abnormalities found initially in the brain had at least slowed down or been partially reversed.”

Not only did the team observe recovery in the anatomical function of the brain, but also in its ability to function.

After the subjects were treated, increased cortical thickness in specific areas of the brain that were related to both pain reduction and physical disability was observed and the abnormal brain activity observed initially during an attention-demanding cognitive task was found to have normalized after treatment.

While more research would be needed to confirm whether chronic pain actually causes these changes in the brain, Stone hypothesizes that chronic low back pain, at the very least, maintains these differences.

“If you can make the pain go away with effective treatment, you can reverse these abnormal changes in the brain.”

Researchers at the University of Maryland contributed to the study.

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