There are numerous indications of possible involvement of the autonomic nervous system in the genesis of chronic pain. The possibility exists that sympathetic activation is related to motor dysfunction and changes in sensory processing, which have otherwise been implicated in musculoskeletal disorders.
The primary aim of the thesis has been to investigate autonomic regulation at rest and in response to laboratory tests of autonomic function in subjects suffering from chronic pain in different localisations (lower back, neck-shoulder and neck-jaw), as well as to study the relations between autonomic regulation, proprioceptive acuity and clinical data. Secondary aim has been to assess autonomic regulation in fit, pain-free subjects in response to experimentally induced pain and in occupationally relevant settings.
A total of 194 subjects suffering from chronic pain participated [low back pain (LBP) n=93; non-traumatic neck pain (NT) n=40, Whiplash associated disorder (WAD) n=40, Whiplash with temporomandibular dysfunction (WADj) n=21]. Each chronic pain group was subjected to a battery of autonomic function tests combining cognitive (Stroop Colour-Word conflict tests), physical (handgrip), sensory (unpleasant sound) and motor tasks (chewing tests) as well as the activation of reflex pathways (paced breathing and the orthostatic test) and compared to an age- and gender balanced control group. Autonomic regulation was also assessed in exposure to experimentally induced muscle pain in healthy subjects (n=24) in order to describe acute pain reaction. Further assessment was carried out during monotonous repetitive work and dynamic work in healthy subjects (n=10) and in a three-day monitoring of ambulance personnel (n=26) in occupational settings.
Autonomic regulation was evaluated using cardiovascular (heart rate and heart rate variability, local blood flow and blood pressure), respiratory (breathing rate) electrodermal (skin conductance), muscular (trapezius and masseter EMG) and biochemical (insulin, cortisol, catecholamines) variables. Proprioceptive acuity was assessed using active-active repositioning tests. Pain levels were assessed using Visual-analogue or Numerical Rating scales. General health was evaluated through the Short-Form SF-36 Health Related Quality of Life questionnaire and Self-Efficacy Score questionnaires, whereas dysfunction was evaluated using the Oswestry Low Back Pain questionnaire, Pain Disability and Neck Disability Index questionnaires, the McKenzie evaluation and primary healthcare diagnoses. Self-reports of pain, stress and exertion were acquired prior to, during and post-testing.
Chronic pain subjects were characterised by increased sympathetic and decreased parasympathetic activity as reflected in heart rate (LBP, WAD, WADj), heart rate variability (LBP, WAD, WADj), blood pressure (WADj) and electrodermal activity (LBP). In general, WAD showed more pain and dysfunction than NT, with lower self-efficacy and health-related quality of life. Differential reactivity was observed only in WAD, with increased responsiveness to sensory stimuli (heart rate variability, electrodermal activity), and motor tasks (heart rate) and a decreased response to cognitive challenge (heart rate variability, electrodermal activity). A significant part of WADj subjects showed sensorimotor impairment and low endurance in chewing tests, concomitant with a cardiovascular response that correlated with pain levels. Proprioceptive acuity was not found to be impaired among subjects suffering from chronic pain, and there were no indications of significant individual response specificity. Response to experimentally induced muscle pain in healthy subjects was also characterised by a prominent cardiovascular component. In simulated occupational settings autonomic activation and transient insulin resistance were detected in healthy subjects following monotonous repetitive work, with no similar effects following dynamic exercise. Modest deviations in circadian heart rate variability patterns during workdays were detected in ambulance personnel reporting more pronounced musculoskeletal symptoms, with no such effects on work-free days.
Autonomic balance observed in chronic pain subjects was characterised by a trend towards increased sympathetic activity in comparison with pain-free controls. Moderate signs of affected reactivity to autonomic function tests were observed in patients with WAD, however no specific reaction patterns have been observed in any chronic pain group. Correspondence between the intensity of pain and autonomic activity was observed in acute pain and in chronic pain groups characterised by higher pain levels. As indicated by autonomic and neurohormonal changes in the recovery from real and simulated work, further studies with physiological monitoring of the effects of work-related stress are warranted for better understanding of the mechanism of musculoskeletal disorders.
Umeå: Kirurgisk och perioperativ vetenskap , 2006. , 62 p.
autonomic reactivity, stress, chronic pain, experimental pain, back, shoulder, neck
2006-11-30, Stora föreläsningssalen, Arbetslivsinstutet, Johan Bures väg 5, Umeå, 10:00 (English)