nih22Research supported by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) indicates that the structure of the brain may predict susceptibility to chronic low back pain (LBP).

Researchers note that while the cause of low back pain was originally thought to be found at the site of injury, recent studies suggest the brain may play a key role in chronic pain. During the current study, Vania Apkarian, PhD, senior author, professor of physiology, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, and colleagues reportedly scanned the brains of 46 individuals who had LBP for 3 months prior to coming to the hospital but who had not had any pain at least a year before.

After scanning the participants’ brains, the researchers evaluated their pain with doctor’s examinations and questionnaires four times for one year. The researchers say that about half of the participants recovered at some time during the year, while the other half experienced what the researchers categorized as “persistent” pain throughout.

A NINDS news release notes that researchers used diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) to measure the structure of white matter, the nerve cell wires, or axons, which link brain cells in different parts of the brain. The researchers reportedly found a consistent difference in white matter between participants who recovered and the participants who experienced pain throughout the year.

Apkarian emphasizes that the results suggest the structure of an individual’s brain, may predispose them to chronic pain. The researchers add that the white matter of participants who had persistent pain looked similar to a third group of participants known to suffer from chronic pain. In participants who recovered, the white matter looked similar to that of healthy control subjects, researchers say.

The release states that the researchers also aimed to determine whether the white matter differences exhibited in the initial brain scans predicted whether the participants would recover or continue to experience pain. The results indicated that white matter brain scans predicted at least 80% of the outcomes.

“Our results support the notion that certain brain networks are involved with chronic pain. Understanding these networks will help us diagnose chronic pain better and develop more precise treatments,” Apkarian says.

Source: National Institutes of Health (NIH)/NINDS