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Back injuries, chronic pain and the mind / body connection

For centuries, philosophers have put forward various definitions of the human condition. In ancient Greece, for example, Plato famously called man a "featherless biped."

The sage should perhaps have said that man is a featherless biped who has a back. After all, chronic back pain affects huge numbers of people around the world.

Here in America, some of those people are eligible for Social Security disability insurance (SSDI). Whether someone is eligible or not, however, it is important for those who suffer back pain to know more about how to manage it.

Sometimes, the pain that these people feel is compounded when others make insensitive comments that try to dismiss their pain as merely being in their head.

It's true that a back injury isn't always overtly obvious, as a bloody wound would be. But that doesn't mean the sensation of pain lacks objective reality.

Indeed, a new research study shows that variations in the brain's "white matter" -- the axons or neural connections that carry signals between parts of the brain and parts of the body -- can help predict when back pain will become chronic.

These variations can do this even before the actual chronic pain has manifested itself.

The research looked at 46 subjects who had experienced back pain and performed brain scans on them regularly over the course of a year. Within two months, the researchers noticed differences in the axons between patients whose pain became chronic and those whose pain was not.

This finding does not point to any immediate treatment for chronic back pain. But more research will surely follow as human efforts to understand the complex connection between mind and body continue to progress.

Source: Los Angeles Times, "Even before injury, chronic back pain may start in the brain," Melissa Healy, September 18, 2013

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