By Karen Davis, Professor of Neuroscience and Canada Research Chair in Brain and Behaviour, University of Toronto
The prevalence of chronic pain is staggering. The Institute of Medicine reported in 2011 that 100 million Americans suffer from chronic pain – more than those with heart disease, cancer and diabetes combined. The report also highlights that the annual costs for medical care, lost wages and productivity is more than $600B. These enormous personal and societal costs of chronic pain has driven an effort to “prove” if and how much pain an individual is suffering from for health care providers, insurance companies and legal actors. This is challenging because pain is a personal and subjective experience. Ideally, self report would be sufficient to establish the “ground truth” of the pain experience.
However, some are not able to provide self reports accurately, and the potential financial gain associated with claims of pain has tarnished the perceived authenticity of subjective reports. This has led some to develop brain imaging-based tests of pain – a so-called “painometer.” Yet, current technologies are simply not able to determine whether or not someone has chronic pain. Here, I consider specifically how we could develop a brain-imaging based painometer – and whether we would want to do so. As we ask: “Can we do it?,” we should always ask, “Is this the right thing to do?”