Find Information About:

Drugs & Supplements

Get information and reviews on prescription drugs, over-the-counter medications, vitamins, and supplements. Search by name or medical condition.

Pill Identifier

Pill Identifier

Having trouble identifying your pills?

Enter the shape, color, or imprint of your prescription or OTC drug. Our pill identification tool will display pictures that you can compare to your pill.

Get Started
My Medicine

My Medicine

Save your medicine, check interactions, sign up for FDA alerts, create family profiles and more.

Get Started

WebMD Health Experts and Community

Talk to health experts and other people like you in WebMD's Communities. It's a safe forum where you can create or participate in support groups and discussions about health topics that interest you.

  • Second Opinion

    Second Opinion

    Read expert perspectives on popular health topics.

  • Community


    Connect with people like you, and get expert guidance on living a healthy life.

Got a health question? Get answers provided by leading organizations, doctors, and experts.

Get Answers

Sign up to receive WebMD's award-winning content delivered to your inbox.

Sign Up

Back Pain Health Center

Font Size

Relieving Back Pain May Help the Brain

Study Shows Link Between Back Pain Relief and Possible Easing of Cognitive Impairments
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

May 18, 2011 -- Chronic lower back pain doesn't just hurt. It also appears to cause thinning of certain regions of the brain, which may lead to cognitive impairments, a study shows.

Researchers studying the link between pain and such thinning had hoped that successfully treating back pain would halt that process. Instead, it reversed it. Six months after surgery or spinal injections, a brain region associated with pain -- the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex -- had thickened.

"We thought it would be able to slow down the thinning, but to actually recover was pretty amazing," says study researcher Laura S. Stone, PhD, a neuroscientist at McGill University in Montreal.

The study is published in The Journal of Neuroscience.

Brain Testing for Back Pain Patients

Stone and colleagues recruited 18 patients who were seeking treatment for chronic lower back pain, which they had had for at least a year. Prior to treatment, each patient had an MRI to measure cortical brain thickness and to assess brain activity during a simple cognitive test. Fourteen of those patients underwent similar testing half a year later. Their tests were compared to scans of 16 people without back pain.

"The extent of the thickening was surprising to us," says study co-researcher David A. Seminowicz, PhD, of the University of Maryland School of Dentistry. "Every patient who had less pain or decreased disability after treatment showed a thickening in that area."

That area is the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which plays an important role in how we perceive pain. While it was the only brain region that showed significant thickening after treatment, several other regions appeared to improve as well.

"There was a trend in a lot of different areas to get thicker," says Seminowicz, who is now planning studies to look at the long-term impact that treating back pain may have on the brain.

Link Between Pain and Brain Function

Pain also puts increased demands on the brain. Patients with lower back pain show an abnormal amount of brain activity when performing the same tasks as those who do not suffer from such discomfort. They often report difficulty concentrating, says Stone. In testing, they show impaired abilities in cognitive tasks and decision making, which may be related to the distracting influence of pain and the demands it puts on the brain.

Today on WebMD

Woman holding lower back
Or is it another form of back pain?
Hand on back
See the myths vs. the facts.
Woman doing pilates
Good and bad exercises.
acupuncture needles in woman's back
Use it to manage your pain.
Man with enhanced spinal column, rear view
pain in brain and nerves
Chronic Pain Healtcheck
Health Check
break at desk
Woman holding lower back
Weight Loss Surgery
lumbar spine
back pain