Massage therapists see people who are in pain, just about every day.

Now, scientists are are one step closer to developing an objective scale for measuring pain.

In the first study of its kind, researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital studied 16 adults with chronic back pain and 16 adults without pain and used a brain-imaging technique called arterial spin labeling to examine patterns of brain connectivity (that is, to examine how different brain regions interact, or “talk to each other”). They found that when a patient moved in a way that increased their back pain, a network of brain regions called Default Mode Network exhibited changes in its connections.

Regions within the network, such as the medial prefrontal cortex, became less connected with the rest of the network; whereas regions outside network, such as the insula, became connected with this network.

Some of these observations have been noted in previous studies of fibromyalgia patients, which suggests these changes in brain connectivity might reflect a general feature of chronic pain, possibly common to different patient populations.

“This is the first study using arterial spin labeling to show common networking properties of the brain are affected by chronic pain,” said study author Ajay Wasan, MD, MSc, Director of the Section of Clinical Pain Research at BWH. “This novel research supports the use of arterial spin labeling as a tool to evaluate how the brain encodes and is affected by clinical pain, and the use of resting default mode network connectivity as a potential neuroimaging biomarker for chronic pain perception.”

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• Massage and Other CAM Therapies Reduce Pain in Hospital Patients