Complaints about subsequently suffering from chronic pain in the lower back region are quite common. But, have you ever wondered why the same happens? The problem can actually root from a number of reasons ranging from degenerative disc disease to even something as trivial as a lack of proper mattress to sleep on.
A new study (R) conducted by the researchers of the University of North Carolina Health Centre has found connection between stimulation of a brain region to relieve chronic pain. This is the first in the class research which shows that targeting one specific brain region with a weak alternating current of electricity can effectively enhance and impact the naturally occurring brain rhythms of that specific region and can promote in relieving the symptoms and pain associated with the lower back.
The paper was recently published in the Journal of Pain and was presented at the Society for Neuroscience conference in San Diego this week itself. The study suggests that the doctors, in the near future, will be able to administer new non-invasive treatments strategies much like that of transcranial alternating current stimulation (tACS) to target one single portion of the brain to be able to boost the naturally occurring waves which were seen to effective fight off the symptoms of chronic pain gradually.
Senior author of the study, Flavio Frohlich, PhD, director of the Carolina Center for Neurostimulation and associate professor of psychiatry stated that he and his team have already published multiple papers focusing mainly around the brain stimulation over the year but this is the first paper that they have focused on chronic pain and its correlation to brain stimulation.
Frohlich stated saying that this is the first time all the three elements for the study has effectively lined up. He further went on to saying that not only did they targeted and stimulated a specific brain region; they also were able to restore the functionalities of that specific region of the brain. They found that the enhancement of the brain waves upon stimulation was associated with the lowered symptoms of the chronic pain.
Julianna Prim, a graduate student, who is currently working in the Department of Allied Health Sciences at the UNC School of Medicine and is also the co-first author of the study, stated that if the stimulation of the brain could be an effective remedy for warding off pain, it would very well be a cheap and non-invasive treatment procedure that can easily replace the burden caused by the opiod and the side effects that it brings about with it.
Statistics suggest that chronic pain is the leading reason behind the caused disability around the world. But, up until now, there were no significant data with the scientists concerning the possible link between the pain and the stimulation of brain region. Frohlich exclaimed that majority of the pain researches focus on the peripheral causes of the chronic pain, not focusing on its relation with the central system.
Several scientists and researchers have come on to believe that the associated of the chronic lower back pain runs deeper than its connection with the peripheral system. Some also believe that the condition of the pain has the capability of rearranging the cells in the nervous system and how they communicate with each other including the various networks of neurons in the brain. With the passing time, the scientists believe that that networks tend to get stuck in a neural rut which is what ends up being the pivotal reason behind the chronic pain.
Prior studies have found the direct correlation of the chronic pain with abnormal neural oscillations (brain waves). One of the primary types of brain waves is the alpha oscillations which occur when we are not taking in an form of stimuli. Frohlich and his colleagues were focused on finding if there is a significant decrease in the levels of alpha oscillations in the patients with chronic pain. If so, could increasing the intensity positively impact the pain?
The co-first author Prim and their colleagues appointed 20 patients who have been consistently complaining about lower back pain for the past six months or so. Majority of the patients signified the pain to be over a mark of “4 out of 10” on a subjective scale of 10. Each of the participants had to undergo two different 40-minutes sessions that took place one to three weeks apart.
During the session, electrodes were attached to the scalp of the patients to take note of their brain activity. In one of the sessions, the researchers targeted the somatosensory cortex of the patient to enhance the alpha wave oscillations using tACS. During the second session, the researchers didn’t target one specific part of the brain and the weak impulse was impacted randomly in a sham or placebo stimulation session.
Following each of the sessions, the patients stated feeling a tingling sensation in their brain on the application of the weak electrical stimulation and they were not aware of when they were targeted with which stimulation. Not just that, even the researchers collecting and recording the data wasn’t aware of the applied stimulation. This made the study double blinded.
Another first author of the study, Sangtae Ahn who was responsible for studying the collected data stated that Frohlich and his team were successfully able to target and enhance the alpha oscillations in the somatosensory cortex of the brain who have a history with chronic lower back pain. Majority of the patients actually even stated feeling relieve in their pain following the tACS session itself. The participants didn’t respond with a reduction in their pain following the sham stimulation session.
Prim further said that the results they collected were based on a single session and they are currently going to conduct an extensive study to discover the effects of the multiple tACS sessions and their impacts on the reduction of the chronic pain experienced by the patients.
Frohlich also mentioned that he expects his lab to further focus on conducting more studies emphasizing their focus on the various different types of chronic pain. This study is believed to be the perfect rendition of when the scientists and clinicians collaborate. According to Frohlich, if we want to develop better treatments, it is necessary to sort out the new approaches that bring together the researchers.