Chronic pain is pain that lingers after an injury has healed, but is persistent and at times seriously debilitating and interferes with the normal activity of a person’s life. The Institute of Medicine reported in 2011 that approximately 100,000 Americans experience chronic pain, costing society about $635 billion annually in health care expenses and loss of productivity in the workplace, the ABA Journal reports.
Pain is subjective and when a person is asked to rate their intensity of pain on a scale from 1 to 10, one person’s 5 or 6, could be another’s 10. In a court case in Arizona, a plaintiff’s lawyer had to present the role of chronic pain which occurred as a result of injuries sustained in an accident in his client’s lawsuit. The attorney turned to a professor, Joy Hirsch, at the time director of the fMRI research center at Columbia University. Hirsch’s specialty had been mapping the brain for neurosurgeons to assist them in avoiding damaging essential functions of the brain during surgery, reports the ABA Journal. Hirsch’s report revealed that the plaintiff’s pain was not imagined and that “functional brain mapping is based on the fundamental principle that specific functions are mediated by specific regions of the brain – including visual, sensory, and motor functions.”
Methods to document pain have been tested by researchers since the 1960s. A process called thermography which used infrared radiation to measure body temperature, was to be an indicator of soft-tissue injury, but often gave false positives and inconclusive results. Advances beginning in the 1980s included the use of positron emission tomography (PET) scanning and more recently, fMRI scanning have been able to more accurately study the link between the pain experience to specific areas of the brain, according to the ABA Journal.
Skepticism remains both with the general public and in the courtroom as to the validity of neuroscientific findings presented as evidence, but research continues, and advances and increased acceptance are being closely monitored by science as well as legal communities.