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Scientists Find a New Way to Measure Pain

Scientists have been searching for an accurate way to measure pain beyond a patient's self-report, but to no avail. A recent study might have found one possible solution. Christie Nicholson reports

[Audio clip of pain]

Physicians gauging pain have little to go on besides a patient’s self-report.  And some sufferers simply can’t communicate how they’re feeling.

So scientists have searched for a reliable way to measure pain physiologically. And they may finally have one. 

Researchers performed functional MRI scans on the brains of 24 subjects who were having an arm heated to the point of moderate pain. The subjects’ brain patterns were recorded both as they experienced pain and zero pain. The researchers then used an algorithm to develop a pain model, based on the patterns. The work was published in the journal PLoS One.

The researchers then analyzed the brain scan patterns of 16 new subjects, some experiencing pain, some not. They found that their model accurately predicted pain levels 81 percent of the time.

Most studies of physiology-based measurements of pain have focused on heart rate, skin conductance and EEG. These measures correlate with pain, but nothing has been accurate enough to substitute for self-reports.

The authors note we can’t depend solely on a study done with heat-based pain—but the method shows hope for new ways to accurately measure pain.

—Christie Nicholson

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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