A hi-tech brain imaging scan is being used to help patients “wish away” chronic pain. The technology, which relies on magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, is aimed at treating a range of pain problems, from backache and neuralgia, to nerve pain and migraine.
It allows patients to see where the pain is coming from – then watch as their own positive thoughts drive it away. Results from a pilot study show patients had a 64 per cent reduction in pain after having the therapy. Estimates of the numbers of people suffering chronic pain vary widely, from seven to 55 per cent of the population. It is defined as continuous or intermittent pain or discomfort which lasts longer than three months. In some cases, the exact cause is not known.
Chronic pain is often unresponsive to conventional treatments such as painkillers. However, studies have shown that it’s possible to “think away” some chronic pain, or be distracted from it. People with chronic pain who continue to socialise, for example, have fewer symptoms than those who withdraw from social interaction. But most people find it difficult to distract themselves and, instead, tend to concentrate on the pain, which makes symptoms worse.
The new treatment uses MRI scans to monitor blood flow in the brain – this identifies activity levels in the area involved in pain. The patient is then given special goggles – similar to virtual reality goggles used in computer games – which show this area of activity, represented by the image of a burning flame. The greater the pain, the greater the blood flow, and the bigger the flame.
Patients are taught to reduce the size of the flame by focusing on something else, like a holiday; visualising the flame being put out with a bucket of water; or imagining the area of the brain is being treated with powerful painkillers.
The theory is that once the patient sees that their thinking is reducing the size of the flame, they will learn to control the pain without having to see the flame, using the techniques they have learned.
The technology is now being tested in a new clinical trial with 144 patients. “This is the first clinical use of this new technology that allows people to watch their own brain at work and to learn to control it,” says Dr John Hawkinson, vice president of research and development at U.S.-based Omneuron, the company carrying out the trials jointly with Stanford University. “We are seeking to reduce pain by giving patients increased control of how they respond to it. These results suggest that people can learn to strengthen the working of a specific region of the brain and the regions associated with the perception of pain.”
The same technology may also be suitable for a number of other conditions, including depression and drug addiction..
Roger Dobson, Daily Mail, Tuesday September 25 2007