[originally published in KCN, December 2005]
No one probably has to tell you that back pain is a drag. It can be incredibly painful. It can rob you of your ability to function normally. It can cause you to miss work. And, it can rack up a sizable bill! But did you know, according to a study last year in the Journal of Neuroscience, it can also shrink your brain?
Researchers from Northwestern University Institute of Neuroscience reported in this very interesting, first of its kind study, that those who suffer from chronic back pain for one year may experience a reduction in the brain’s gray matter equivalent to the same amount lost by the average person in 10 to 20 years of normal aging. Gray matter, the darker-colored tissue of the brain, is responsible for “thinking” activities such as memory and information processing.
Lead researcher, and an associate professor of physiology, A.V. Apkarian, along with his colleagues, compared 26 patients with unrelenting, chronic lower back pain of greater than one year in duration with 26 healthy, pain-free volunteers. High-tech brain images were performed on all the patients to measure the amount of gray matter present. After adjusting for age and gender factors, these scientists found that, overall, chronic back pain patients lost about 5-11% of gray matter a year, compared to a much lower 0.5% in the healthy volunteers. Patients that had suffered from chronic lower back pain for multiple years had the largest losses of gray matter, along with those that had leg pain, or sciatica, in adddition to their back pain.
Dr. Apkarian theorizes that because chronic pain is a state of persistent pain sensation with associated negative mood and stress, one possible explanation for the decreased gray matter is that nerve cells are “working overtime.”
And while it is clear that much more research needs to be conducted, and is sure to follow, Apkarian did offer some hope to this gloomy, albeit very interesting, scientific discovery. He stated that it is possible that some of the gray matter losses observed in this study could reflect tissue shrinkage without substantial nerve cell loss, “suggesting that proper treatment would reverse this portion of the decreased brain gray matter.”
While this study certainly is not the final say on this matter, and perhaps prompts more questions than answers, it does add more weight to the seriousness of chronic pain. And the hope that with “proper treatment” some of the brain loss can be salvaged is very encouraging — which is why I should remind you of the study released the first part of this year (Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics, 2005) that followed up a previous study comparing chiropractic, medicine, and acupuncture for the treatment of chronic pain (Spine, 2003). The researchers found chiropractic results to be superior to both medicine and acupuncture for the treatment of chronic pain, concluding that for patients with chronic spinal pain, chiropractic treatment, “…may be the only treatment modality of the assessed regimens that provides broad and significant long-term benefit.”
So, if you’re keeping a tabulation of reasons why you should see a chiropractor, make this one #492: Chiropractic keeps you thinking… literally.