Can back pain relief improve brain function?

May 25 2011
Anyone who has ever experienced prolonged or recurrent physical discomfort, such as that related to lower back pain, a pinched nerve or sciatica, knows that it can have a detrimental impact on their quality of life and even brain function.

In a nutshell, when we experience chronic pain, we tend to focus on that sensation and are unable - both physically and mentally - to attend to many other daily responsibilities.

This anecdotal evidence has been supported by studies, which discovered that people with chronic pain symptoms tend to show evidence of cognitive impairments and reduced gray matter in the areas of the brain where pain processing takes place. This, in turn, increases their risk of developing depression and anxiety.

The good news is that recent research has also found that relieving chronic lower back pain can bring about a reversal of these unhealthy changes in the brain.

Scientists from McGill University and the McGill University Health Centre in Montreal recruited orthopedic patients who had experienced lower back pain for more than six months. All of these individuals opted for interventional pain management such as epidural injections or spinal surgery to treat their symptoms.

The researchers used an MRI to measure the cortical thickness of the participants' brains and brain activity during a cognitive task before and six months after their procedures. They found that there was indeed evidence of improvement in the anatomical structure as well as brain function following treatment.

Senior author of the study Laura S. Stone, from McGill's Alan Edwards Centre for Research on Pain, said that although the results are preliminary, they are promising nonetheless.

"If you can make the pain go away with effective treatment, you can reverse these abnormal changes in the brain," she stressed.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, lower back pain is one of the most common reasons for a doctor's visit or hospitalization among Americans.