Chronic pain appears to damage neurons in key parts of the brain controlling sensory perception, which may explain why such pain becomes harder to treat the longer it lasts, a Northwestern University study has found.
Experts said the research underscores the importance of seeking treatment for chronic pain to avoid long-term damage. Chronic pain may affect as many as 50 million people and is the No. 1 cause of adult disability, according to a survey by the American Chronic Pain Association that also indicates such patients frequently delay seeing a physician.
Using MRI brain imaging technology to examine 26 people with chronic back pain, Feinberg School of Medicine physiologist A. Vania Apkarian found their brains had 5 to 11 percent less neocortical gray matter than the brains of normal people - "equivalent to the gray matter volume lost in 10-20 years of normal aging," he wrote in Tuesday's issue of the Journal of Neuroscience.
Brain cells died off in two important areas of the brain that sense and respond to pain signals: the thalamus, which routes sensory information to the cortex in the front of the brain, and the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in interpreting incoming data and making decisions.
"If the elements of the circuitry that one needs to control pain are the ones that we are losing, it may be exactly why we do not have adequate medications for such patients," Apkarian said.
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