Does Widespread Pain Spread From the Brain?

Pain is the most common reason people seek medical care, according to the National Institutes of Health.

“Sometimes we can easily pinpoint what is causing a person pain,” says Richard Harris, Ph.D., associate professor of anesthesiology and rheumatology at Michigan Medicine. “But, there are still 1 in 5 Americans who suffer from persistent pain that is not easily identifiable.”

Whenever someone experiences pain, they often think about how intense the pain is — but rarely do they also consider how widespread the pain is.

“Surprisingly, many of the individuals, in addition to having pain located in the pelvic region, had pain also widely distributed throughout their body,” Harris says. “Interestingly, when we put these individuals into the brain imaging scanner, we found that those who had widespread pain had increased gray matter and brain connectivity within sensory and motor cortical areas, when compared to pain-free controls.”

Urological chronic pelvic pain syndrome patients with widespread pain showed increased brain gray matter volume and functional connectivity involving the sensorimotor and insular cortices.

“What was surprising was these individuals with widespread pain, although they had the diagnosis of urological chronic pelvic pain, were actually identical to another chronic pain disorder: fibromyalgia,” Harris says.

The team notes the changes in brain gray matter volume and functional connectivity were identical to outcomes present in fibromyalgia patients, but were not seen in the pain-free control group.