While the separate treatment of concurrent depression and chronic pain is
not new, evidence for a treatment regimen has been based largely on clinical
research. Now American and German researchers have used brain imaging to
confirm that when depression and chronic pain occur together, they should be
treated independently because sensory pain and affective pain are processed
along parallel, virtually independent pain-processing networks.
This is believed to be the first proof of the independence of pain and
depression shown by brain scans and may explain why medications used to treat
depression might not help in the management of pain. It is estimated that some
30 percent to 54 percent of people with chronic pain also have a major
Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of the brain,
researchers at the University of Michigan Health System and the University of
Cologne in Germany found that the presence or severity of depression in
patients who also have fibromyalgia does not appear to be related to the
intensity of pain they experience from fibromyalgia. However, the depression
does appear to be associated with the extent to which two brain regions
involved in emotional responses are activated—the anterior insula and
the amygdala. As depression becomes more severe, there are substantial
increases in blood flow in areas of the brain that code for the"
affective" and "cognitive" aspects of pain.
While the researchers studied only fibromyalgia patients, they reported in
the May Arthritis and Rheumatism that the findings may apply to
people who have other chronic pain conditions, such as low-back pain,
irritable bowel syndrome, and vulvodynia.
"There is an incorrect impression among many doctors that if you
treat a patient's depression, it will make their pain better. Not so,"
Daniel Clauw, M.D., one of the study's researchers, told Psychiatric
News. Clauw is director of the University of Michigan Chronic Pain and
Fatigue Research Center and a professor of rheumatology at the University of
Michigan Medical School. "If someone is diagnosed with pain and
depression, you have to treat both," he added.
The study involved 33 women and 20 men with fibromyalgia, a chronic pain
that affects several million people. It afflicts more women than men and
typically involves tenderness to the touch, stiffness, and fatigue. There were
42 healthy control subjects in the study.
The testing included a measurement of pain experienced by subjects based on
their tolerance of pressure applied to their left thumbnails using a hard
rubber probe. Subjects were interviewed and filled out a questionnaire that
assessed depression symptoms. Functional MRI scans were used to compare the
subjects' magnitude of pain, experimental pain sensitivity, and symptoms of
The main finding was that fibromyalgia patients needed much less pressure
to activate neurons associated with acute pain in the brain's sensory domain
than the healthy controls.
"We have seen that if you give antidepressants to the average patient
with fibromyalgia, they'll come back a couple of months later and say, `My
pain isn't any better, but I don't feel so sad about it,'" Clauw
The lead author of the study was Thorsten Giesecke, M.D., a research fellow
at the University of Michigan Chronic Pain and Fatigue Research Center.
The research was funded by the Department of the Army and the National
Institutes of Health, including a grant from the General Clinical Research
Center Program of the National Center for Research.
Clauw and his team at the Chronic Pain and Fatigue Research Center also are
working on studies of activity, exercise, and pain among people with all kinds
of chronic pain conditions. They have started a registry of people willing to
take part in such studies, both those with chronic conditions and those
An abstract of "The Relationship Between Depression, Clinical
Pain, and Experimental Pain in a Chronic Pain Cohort" is posted online
More information about the registry and the studies at Michigan are posted
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