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Pain Management Health Center

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Training the Brain to Reduce Pain

High-Tech Brain Images Helps Patients Learn to Handle Pain
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Dec. 12, 2005 -- There may be a high-tech way to teach people to handle chronic pain, scientists report.

They're not talking about a sophisticated device that erases pain. Instead, they used medical technology to help patients learn how to handle their own pain.

The strategy is in its early days, so it's not ready for widespread use. Thorough tests are needed, the researchers note.

They describe their work in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Coping With Pain

The study included 36 healthy students from Stanford University and 12 people in their 30s with chronic pain.

The pain patients had largely had little relief from other pain treatments (including painkillers and counseling).

Those who didn't have chronic pain received pain exposure through heat applied to the palm of their left hand during the experiment.

The Golden Rules of Processing Pain

First, everyone got four written rules about coping with pain. Those rules were:

  • Shift attention away from the pain to a painless part of the body
  • View pain as a neutral sensation, not something hurtful, frightening, or overwhelming
  • Regard pain as being of low or high intensity
  • Stay in control of the experience of pain

Next, participants were told they would get real-time brain scans using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while they used those rules to cope with pain.

For comparison, four pain patients were taught another way to deal with their pain, without getting any brain scans. That method involved biofeedback, in which people learn to consciously control automatic body processes through watching monitors of their body functions such as heart rate and respiration.

The Brain on Pain

Patients saw their brain scans in real time. That is, they could see how their brains behaved during pain.

The scans focused on a brain area known to be involved in sensing and regulating pain.

Over time, patients were able to cut down on their pain levels. The real-time brain scans let them see their brains' pain perceptions.

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