Brainwave patterns can reliably predict a person’s pain sensitivity
An international team of researchers has homed in on a specific brain wave measurement that can effectively predict a person’s pain sensitivity. The research suggests this tool could be used to help doctors generate tailored treatment plans for patients based on their individual pain tolerance.
Over the past few years researchers from the University of Birmingham in the UK and the University of Maryland in the US have identified a correlation between a person’s subjective sensitivity to pain and a particular pattern of electrical activity in the brain. This new study furthers that prior research by experimentally testing whether this brainwave pattern could effectively predict a healthy subject's pain tolerance.
The general hypothesis is alpha wave activity, as measured by an electroencephalogram (EEG), predicts a person’s pain tolerance. So those with slower alpha wave frequency EEG readings will report greater sensitivity to pain than those with higher alpha wave frequency readings.
The new study tested this hypothesis by recruiting 61 healthy subjects. The entire cohort completed EEG baseline measurements before experiencing several pain tests over two sessions spanning eight weeks. One experiment tested acute pain sensitivity involving exposure to heat on the forearm, while another tested longer-term chronic pain sensitivity using a cream made with capsaicin, the chemical that makes chill peppers hot.
The results verified the hypothesis that alpha wave activity effectively predicted an individual's pain sensitivity. And the single baseline EEG measurement taken at the beginning of the study was still effective at predicting pain sensitivity eight weeks later at the second experimental pain session.
The researchers suggest this predictive measure could be useful in a number of clinical settings. Of particular importance is the tendency for those patients most sensitive to post-surgical pain to often go on to develop chronic pain problems.
"We know that lung surgery is a particularly painful procedure, with between 40 and 60 percent of patients going on to develop debilitating pain after surgery," explains co-author Ali Mazaheri. "By predicting which patients are likely to develop this pain, we can start to explore other options, such as radiotherapy, or make sure that intensive rehabilitation programmes are in place to support those patients through recovery."
David Seminowicz, another co-author on the study, also suggests it could be extraordinarily valuable for a doctor to know a patient’s pain tolerance. This type of information could guide future treatment plans, and allow preventative measures to be deployed ahead of painful scenarios.
"Understanding a patient's pain sensitivity could be really important in, for example, deciding whether an elective procedure is the best option or planning post-surgery rehabilitation,” says Seminowicz. “Pain management drugs or techniques such as mindfulness meditation can also be used before surgery to help minimize pain."
The new study was published in the journal Cerebral Cortex.
Source: University of Birmingham