Brain Scan Study Reveals Where Pain Lies

A recent Wall Street Journal article focused on new developments in research on how our brain reacts to pain. The article revealed that new research has demonstrated that we have a lot of control over how we interpret pain and that new methods are being developed to try and train our brains to feel less pain, especially in the case of those experiencing chronic pain.

For example, Stanford University’s Neuroscience and Pain Lab has conducted studies where subjects watch their own brain scans while reacting to pain. Researchers then work on training the subjects to focus on something else instead of the pain. Distracting oneself from the pain lessens our perception of the pain and in essence takes some of the pain away. The more the subjects work at re-evaluating their pain, the less interference the pain had in their day to day lives.

This idea of refocusing one’s attention away from the pain has been used by laymen for years. When a child falls and hurts himself, his mother might try to distract him from his cuts and scrapes with a special treat. Or having women in labor focus on breathing techniques to try and remain calm through the pain. So while this research might seem obvious to many, it is only recently that researchers are studying the underlying science and figuring out new ways to apply these findings to pain therapy.

The need for advances in pain therapy can be attributed to the high numbers of people suffering from chronic pain. A 2011 report published by the Institute of Medicine stated that 116 million Americans, i.e. a third of the US population, experience chronic pain and yet are inadequately treated for their pain. Currently Vicodin is the most prescribed drug in the US, yet simply prescribing painkillers does not seem to be an adequate solution. In fact, doing so has led to an additional problem- the abuse of pain medication. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the number of annual deaths from an overdose of pain killers quadrupled between 1998 and 2008.

One of the alternate therapies that scientists are researching is guided therapy. This therapy asks patients to imagine positive imagery, such as floating on a cloud, in an effort to divert their attention away from the pain. Ravi Prasad, a pain psychologist at Stanford, compared such methods to “having a flashlight in the dark [where] you choose what you want to focus on” and stated that “we have that same power with our mind.”
Mediation also shows huge potential in terms of distracting people from their pain. Brain scans from Stanford have shown that mediating subjects had less activity in their primary somatosensory cortex, which is the area of the brain which where pain comes from. Similarly, those subjects had an increased activity in their anterior cortex, which is the area of the brain that handles unpleasant feelings.

A Wake Forest study demonstrates some of the ways in which meditation can be used as a chronic pain treatment. The Wake Forest researchers taught 15 adults to mediate for just 20 minutes a day. While the subjects were mediating, the researchers placed a 120 degree Fahrenheit probe on their legs. The test subjects reported feeling 40% less pain intensity from the painful stimuli and 57% less unpleasant feelings while meditating.

And while scientists will continue to research ways altering our perceptions of pain can be used to treat chronic pain, they caution the over-reliance on such techniques. Dr. Briggs, the director of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), cautions patients against ignoring traditional medical treatment. Dr. Briggs states, “You can’t just say, ‘Go take a yoga class.’ That’s not a thoughtful approach to pain management.” Even as we develop alternate methods for treating pain, it is still important to identify the source of the pain before attempting to remove the pain symptoms.

Chicago’s Kreisman Law Offices has been handling Illinois medical malpractice cases for individuals and families for more than 35 years in and around Chicago, Cook County and surrounding areas, including Naperville, Wheeling, Joliet, and Chicago’s Bridgeport neighborhood.


“Rewiring the Brain to Ease Pain: Brain Scans Fuel Efforts to Teach Patients How to Short-Circuit Hurtful Signals.” The Wall Street Journal. 15 November 2011.
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