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Patients Learn To Use Brain To Beat Pain

Could Help Control Addictions

- Chronic pain is one of health care's biggest and most expensive issues. Innovative research from Stanford tries to teach patients how to control their own pain. Scientists hope this is major first step in pain relief for millions.

Sean Mackey, M.D., PhD, Stanford pain researcher: "As the brain activity increases, her pain also increased."

You are getting a unique look at a brain in pain -- the red area shows waves of pain racking a patient's body and brain. Stanford pain specialist Dr. Sean Mackey says he's trying a new approach to controlling pain, because pain is a very big deal.

Sean Mackey, M.D., PhD: "Pain is an absolutely huge issue. So it's estimated to affect over 50 million Americans alone -- over 170,000 people each year seek treatment in a chronic pain center."

Chronic pain sufferers have usually tried everything, from over-the-counter pills to prescriptions medications. Some still don't get relief. Stanford researchers are trying to teach pain patients how to control their pain, using their brains.

Phillip Morrison, pain study patient: "The worst days, it was so bad that I would have trouble brushing my teeth, brushing my hair and I couldn't really swim at all."

Pain has been a constant part of Phillip's life for more than 10 years. As a Stanford swim student training for Olympics, he could barely lift his arm.

Phillip Morrison: "Anything that was past here, it would hurt. It was painful."

During the study, Phillip was placed into a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine (fMRI). First Dr. Mackey had him do mental exercises to try to increase his pain while watching feedback of his own brain activity.

Phillip Morrison: "I imagined someone stabbing me here, and, you know, the knife actually tweaking around."

Sean Mackey, M.D., PhD: "When he would increase, the brain activity represented by this orange area his pain would also go up."

Then Phillip was told to try to reduce his pain while watching his brain waves.

Phillip Morrison: "I would think of, you know, either someone massaging it, or cool colors touching it, and sucking all the bad energy out."

And it worked -- the blue area shows Phillip was able to reduce his pain a lot.

Sean Mackey, M.D., PhD: "There were so many people who came out of the scanner who said for the first time, I can see the pain in my brain and I can control it. And that was a very powerful experience."

Dr. Mackey says patients in the study averaged about a 40-percent drop in pain, but he cautions much more research is needed before this is clinically available.

While Phillip is not pain-free, he says he continues to improve by practicing some of what he learned in the scanner.

Phillip Morrison: "I think that the studies show that you can definitely decrease or increase a lot your pain problems, just by your mental state or mind."

More proof that it's mind over matter.

Researchers hope to broaden the research to larger number of subjects trying to control several areas of the brain. Ultimately, they hope to expand outside of pain relief into control over tobacco or drug addictions, as well.

 

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For More Information:

Sean Mackey, MD, PhD
Associate Director For The Pain Management Division
Stanford University Pain Management Center
Stanford University School Of Medicine
300 Pasteur Dr.
Stanford, Ca 94305

For info about participating in Dr.Mackey's studies, contact The Stanford Systems Neuroimaging/Pain Laboratory at (650) 724-0522.

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