Scientists prove it’s true – the spinal cord gets into the act to maintain chronic pain.
The experience of chronic pain is more than the sum of its parts.
Chronic pain sufferers are familiar with the scenario: Reverberating pain circuits get activated in the brain and spinal cord. Then you can’t get rid of pain just by healing an injured joint or muscle – the pain has taken on a life of its own.
Now a research team led by Sean Mackey, MD, PhD at Stanford University has found an elegant way to study this phenomenon – with functional magnetic imaging of the spinal cord.
The research relies on the basic principle that areas of the spinal cord are organized into functional groupings. In other words, if you move your fingers, a cluster of neurons in a specific zone of the spinal cord gets activated to coordinate the movement.
The team at Stanford was able to sensitize the spinal cord in a group of volunteers by repeatedly applying heat to an area of the forearm. Then, when these test subjects moved their fingers, the functional zone of the spinal cord that got activated had become much larger. They weren’t in pain when the spinal cord imaging was being performed, yet the experience of pain had left its mark. It was almost as if the nerves in the spine had lost some of their differentiation, becoming indiscriminately linked together.
Significantly, spinal cord sensitization wasn’t affecting just pain. It had changed the way the spinal cord operated in controlling movement, too.
The themes of this research are critically important to my work.
Analgesics are designed to dampen pain but they can’t touch the abnormal spinal cord sensitization that underpins chronic pain. On the other hand, clinicians who utilize manual therapy methods have evidence that they can change the internal state of the spinal cord.
This research shines light on the mode of action of chiropractic spinal adjustments and NeuroTactile Therapy. Each of these methods feeds specific, segmental information into the spinal cord with the potential to influence reverberating circuitry.
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