Pain Sufferers Use Brain to Find Relief

They tap into area of brain responsible for processing pain, study finds

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MONDAY, Dec. 12, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- Viewing their own live brain images may help people with chronic pain lower their pain levels, say Stanford University School of Medicine researchers.

Their study included eight people with chronic pain and 36 healthy people who viewed their brain images on real-time functional magnetic resonance imaging (rtfMRI). With training, the participants were able to influence their pain by controlling activity in one of the brain's pain centers, the rostral anterior cingulate cortex. They did this using mental exercises while they viewed their real-time brain activity.

The findings appear in the Dec. 12 online issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"We believe these subjects and patients really learned to control their brain and, through that, their pain," study co-author Dr. Sean Mackey, an assistant professor of anesthesia, said in a prepared statement.

The study participants were given various mental strategies to try to alter their brain activity.

"As an example, we asked them to think about changing the meaning of pain. Instead of thinking of it as a terrible experience, to think of it as something relatively pleasant. Then the patients were turned loose. Over time, subjects showed an increased ability to change their brain and by doing so to modulate their pain," Mackey said.

He and his colleagues couldn't say exactly how the study volunteers actually did this.

While the Stanford researchers are hopeful that this method may have potential as a long-term treatment for people with chronic pain, they emphasize that much more research is needed.

More information

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has more on managing chronic pain.

SOURCE: Stanford University, news release, Dec. 12, 2005

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