We all know what pain feels like. It can sting or it can throb. It can be constant or pain can be intermittent. These words describe different characteristics of pain, but how would you describe the depth of pain? Very painful, kind of painful? Accurately describing to someone else how much pain you’re feeling can be difficult, especially if the pain isn’t attached to a particular injury.
One in three people experience chronic pain in the U.S. (pain that has no source and cannot be treated by addressing any one malady will qualify as chronic pain). Instead, doctors prescribe general pain pills and, increasingly, medical marijuana, based on a patient’s subjective reports.
This leaves a lot of people skeptical of chronic pain, even though it can be very real and very debilitating. Researchers have now come up with a way to objectively measure pain. Eventually we may no longer need words to describe different levels of pain, just brains scans will do.
Using fMRI, researchers were able to isolate areas of the brain that are activated when a patient experiences pain. Subjects were then caused pain with a heat probe while their brain signals were being measured. These measurements were then used to create an algorithm that will be able to indicate pain. Though the technology and our understanding of pain is still somewhat unsophisticated and in its preliminary stages (its accuracy rating is around 81%), it’s likely that pain levels could soon be documented just as precisely as your height or weight.
It’s almost frightening: something that seems so troublesome to articulate ourselves, something that feels so inherently personal and subjective, can actually be reduced to a simple science. How long before other mental states or even individual thoughts can simply be read and recorded from outside of your body?
This could mean extraordinary things for sufferers of chronic pain. Above all, increased legitimacy and better diagnoses. This is just one of the many surprising and useful discoveries to come out of the neuroscience field in the past decade, a field that’s surely to explode with information in the coming years. Hopefully studying the brain on this level will allow us to relate our own experiences to doctors, family or whomever much more accurately and aid us in getting the treatments we need.
(Stock photo courtesy of sixninepixels)