Despite the fact that chronic pain is one of the most expensive ailments in the United States today, almost nothing is known about the condition. Nobody knows the mechanisms behind it, nobody knows why some people develop it while others don’t, even with the exact same injury, and nobody really knows how to treat it.
Luckily, it turns out that chronic pain is all just in their heads.
That might infuriate sufferers of chronic pain, as I’m sure plenty of people tell them that they’re just being weak or that they’re faking it. However, I did mean that statement literally.
A new 10-year study from Northwestern University is the first to hint at the origins of chronic disease – physical differences in the brain between those who develop the condition and those who don’t. Specifically, chronic pain sufferers seem to have more communication between the prefrontal cortex and the nucleus accumbens.
For all of you non-brain-surgeons out there, those are the areas related to emotional and motivational behavior. It seems as though the more emotionally the brain reacts to the initial injury, the more likely the pain will persist after the injury ahs healed. Additionally, the nucleus accumbens helps teach the rest of the brain how to evaluate and react to stimuli, and it may use the pain signal to teach the rest of the brain to develop chronic pain.
Researchers took 40 patients without any prior back pain who had been clinically diagnosed as recently developing it and scanned their brains. After three subsequent checkups and brain scans, the scientists discovered they could use these differences in brain communication to predict who would then go on to develop chronic pain with an 85 percent accuracy rate.
Why people’s brains communicate differently, however, is still a mystery. It could be that people have intrinsic differences in how these brain regions communicate. Or, it could be the result of external influences. Whatever the reasons, lead author A. Vania Apakarian hopes that this discover y will lead to new therapies for the 30 to 40 million sufferers of chronic pain in the United States alone.