In a much needed breakthrough, neuroscientists have developed a technique to predict how much physical pain people are feeling by looking at images of their brain scans.
Until this point, the only way for doctors to "measure" pain is by using a pain scale. This typically involves patient self-reporting — like ranking pain on a scale from 1 to 10 — and observing their behavior.
This can be problematic when doctors have to make important clinical decisions. Patients in pain are notorious for both understating and overstating their degree of pain. Also, some patients may be incapacitated in some way and unable to properly articulate their level of discomfort.
What’s more, there is no unified or industry-standard pain scale currently in use; there are over 20 different scales that are utilized in different jurisdictions and contexts. The lack of consensus on this issue points to how difficult it is to measure what is essentially phenomenological quale — the individualized or subjective experience of pain.
Looking to contribute to ongoing efforts to measure pain, neuroscientists from the University of Colorado Boulder, New York University, Johns Hopkins University, and the University of Michigan set about the task of using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to identify objective measures of pain. Their findings now appear in the New England Journal of Medicine.