Studies: Chronic Pain Comes From the Brain

ByABC News
February 25, 2005, 10:21 AM

Feb. 28, 2005 — -- Dial Lewis says she has seen nearly every kind of doctor and taken almost every kind of pill to try and ease her chronic back and hip pain, but it still hurts around the clock.

Ever since the La Porte, Texas, resident fell 15 years ago, no treatment has made a dent in the constant throbs she feels in her back.

"After tests, they say 'Oh, you're in chronic pain, so you're depressed, aren't you?'" she said. "So they send you to a psychiatrist and a sociologist and they give you antidepressants and painkillers. I spent close to 14 years being on everything -- but nothing ever works."

About 10 percent of Americans suffer from chronic pain, according to studies. An April 2004 survey by the American Chronic Pain Association found that for more than half of chronic pain sufferers, their condition hinders their ability to work, while 45 percent say it damages their personal relationships.

Considering the toll that chronic pain can take on a person's life, being told that it is "all in your head," is not something most patients like to hear. But new research using the latest in brain scan technology is showing that some pain actually does originate in the brain. And it's not imagined -- recent work has shown that chronic back pain can even cause brain tissues to shrink if it is prolonged.

"I think when people say pain is 'all in my head,' it suggests it's not real," said Catherine Bushnell, a researcher at McGill University's Center for Research on Pain in Montreal. "These studies don't say it's not real, they show that brain activity can create a situation that produces real pain."

Using brain imaging, Bushnell has shown that something as simple as being distracted has a real effect in decreasing the intensity of pain signals in the brain. She and her colleague, Chantal Villemure, subjected volunteers to slightly painful pulses of heat and, in other tests, they had them listen to different tones at the same time.