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
WebMD

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
WebMD

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
    WebMD

    Second Opinion

    Read expert perspectives on popular health topics.

  • Community
    WebMD

    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

Pain Management Health Center

Font Size
A
A
A

Pain 'Signature' Spotted on Brain MRIs

Scientists could distinguish physical from emotional pain, discomfort in study

continued...

"We know that right now many people have their pain undertreated," Wager noted.

But scientists are a long way from using fMRI scans to gauge pain, according to Wang at NYU. "This is a comprehensive, meticulous study," he said, but added that it's also an early step.

One big caveat is that the study volunteers were all healthy and exposed to just one type of pain -- short-lived pain from heat applied to the skin. Wang said researchers need to see whether this same brain "signature" would appear in people with chronic pain conditions, or pain after surgery, for example.

And since fMRI scans are expensive, Wang noted, studies would have to show that the imaging actually benefits patients before it would be routinely used in the real world.

The study involved a total of 114 healthy young adults who took part in different phases of the research. First, Wager's team found that fMRI scans were able to pick up a reliable pain signature in the brain when volunteers had painful heat applied to their forearms.

The researchers then found that the signature was different and stronger than brain activity that popped up in response to the sensation of warmth, or to anticipation or remembrance of the pain.

More interesting, Wager said, was that the signature seemed to be unique to physical pain. In one set of experiments, the researchers had heartbroken volunteers who'd recently gone through a breakup look at a photo of their ex-partner. That did trigger activity in brain regions related to physical pain, but the signature linked to heat-induced pain remained distinct.

Wager agreed that much more work needs to be done, and his team is already looking at whether the neurologic signature holds up in other types of pain.

For his part, Wang pointed out that pain comes in many different forms, with causes ranging from inflammation to nerve damage. And chronic pain, in particular, is very complex, study author Wager noted.

Whether fMRI is ever used to diagnose pain, studies like this could help researchers gain a better understanding of the "biology of pain," Wang said. "Our understanding of pain is still fairly rudimentary."

A better understanding of pain, Wager said, will hopefully lead to better ways to manage it.

1 | 2

Today on WebMD

pain in brain and nerves
Top causes and how to find relief.
knee exercise
8 exercises for less knee pain.
 
acupuncture needles in woman's back
How it helps arthritis, migraines, and dental pain.
chronic pain
Get personalized tips to reduce discomfort.
 
illustration of nerves in hand
Slideshow
lumbar spine
Slideshow
 
Woman opening window
Slideshow
Man holding handful of pills
Video
 
Woman shopping for vegetables
Slideshow
Sore feet with high heel shoes
Slideshow
 
acupuncture needles in woman's back
Slideshow
man with a migraine
Slideshow