Chronic Pain on the Brain: Mapping Pain with MRIs

Our readers tell us that one of the hardest parts about being in chronic pain is that their friends, families, and co-workers do not understand the effect pain is having on their lives. Many feel isolated and depressed because the people around them believe they are exaggerating their pain.

See Open Letter from a Person with Chronic Pain

Recent studies of MRI brain scans may be a step forward in understanding chronic pain.
Learn more:
Chronic Pain As a Disease: Why Does It Still Hurt?

It doesn't make it any easier that scientists have not found a way to objectively measure pain. MRI scans do not light up when someone is feeling pain, and patients have to rely on the pain scale to try to communicate their pain to their physicians.

See How MRI Scans Work

Quantifying pain

One pain expert, Dr. Sean Mackey from Stanford's Division of Pain Management, is working to try to quantify pain using imaging. A trained anesthesiologist and engineer, his most recent studies have focused on how chronic pain affects the physical structures in the brain.

Read Study Demonstrates How Chronic Pain May Lead to Depression

For an analysis published in 2012, he studied the anatomy of the brain using a structural MRI in 94 patients. Half of the patients had no pain, and the other half had been suffering from low back pain for at least 6 months.

He found that people in chronic pain had subtle differences in the density in certain areas of their brain compared to people who were not in pain.

See When Acute Pain Becomes Chronic Pain

Using this established pattern of subtle density changes, he was able to identify people with low back pain correctly 76% of the time.

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Pain science is controversial

Dr. Mackey realizes these types of studies can be controversial, because no machine can quantify what a person is feeling. Pain is a very personal experience, and if doctors can one day quantify it, they may question their patients' pain experience if their pain doesn't show up on a machine.

See Modern Theories of Chronic Pain

However, Dr. Mackey's hope for these studies is that they will offer new ways to treat pain, perhaps targeting the brain itself with medicines or other therapies to treat pain that is felt in other parts of the body.

See Pain Management for Chronic Back Pain

Would you take a test that could quantify your pain? Let us know on our Facebook page:

We know how difficult it is to have chronic pain that is invisible to others. If you could take a test that would show evidence of your pain on an MRI, do you think this would help?

Posted by Spine-health on Thursday, August 13, 2015

Learn more:

Managing Chronic Pain

Opening and Closing the Pain Gates for Chronic Pain


  1. Erik Vance, "Where Does It Hurt?," Discover, May 2014.
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