Relief from pain is one of the primary reasons clients receive massage therapy. A new study shows that people with a specific type of pain syndrome may have accompanying changes in the areas of the brain related to emotion, pain perception and skin temperature.
The finding by scientists at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine begins to explain complex region pain syndrome (CRPS), which the medical community had doubted was real.
CRPS usually begins with an injury causing significant damage to the hand or the foot, according to a university press release. For the majority of people, the pain from the injury disappears once the limb is healed. But for 5 percent of the patients, the pain rages on long past the healing, sometimes for the rest of people’s lives. About 200,00 people in the U.S. have this condition.
In a hand injury, for example, the pain may radiate from the initial injury site and spread to the whole arm or even the entire body. People also experience changes in skin color to blue or red as well as skin temperature (hotter at first, then becoming colder as the condition turns chronic.) Their immune system also shifts into overdrive, indicated by a hike in blood immune markers.
The changes in the brain take place in the network of tiny, white “cables” that dispatch messages between the neurons. This is called the brain’s white matter. Several years ago, Northwestern researchers discovered chronic pain caused the regions in the brain that contain the neurons—called gray matter because of it looks gray—to atrophy.
This is the first study to link pain with changes in the brain’s white matter. It will be published November 26 in the journal Neuron.
“This is the first evidence of brain abnormality in these patients,” said A. Vania Apkarian, professor of physiology at the Feinberg School and principal investigator of the study. ” People didn’t believe these patients. This is the first proof that there is a biological underpinning for the condition. Scientists have been trying to understand this baffling condition for a long time.”