Stanford researchers map pain

Oct. 4, 2011, 2:02 a.m.

Stanford University School of Medicine researchers used heat probes and functional magnetic resonance imaging scans (fMRIs), which take a series of pictures showing brain activity, to map mild pain in a September study. The researchers in the Stanford Division of Pain Management used computer algorithms to model pain inflicted by heat probes on the subjects’ arms. To the relief of the many who experience chronic pain, the researchers hope to apply the same method to map and measure that disorder.

Chronic pain, often the result, months or years later, of a more serious injury, can cause extreme torment for those who experience it.

Sean Mackey, Chief of the Stanford Pain Management Center and co-author of the study, stresses the importance of validation of pain. Pain, he says, is a neurophysiologic phenomenon.

Yet patients may still feel that physicians, caregivers or family members do not believe them, adding value to Mackey’s research as validation that chronic pain exists. The research aims ultimately to provide a diagnostic tool to challenge the gold standard of self-reporting pain. Advances in neuroimaging could also address problems faced when patients are unable to communicate their pain.

Much remains that doctors do not know about chronic pain, which can often lead to difficulties in treatment, which frequently falls short of the patient’s needs.

The study used a computer algorithm invented in 1995. The researchers asked a computer to predict when subjects were feeling pain. The system was accurate 81 percent of the time.

– Margaret Rawson

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