Brain imaging of pain sensitization in patients with knee osteoarthritis

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A relevant aspect in osteoarthritic pain is neural sensitization. This phenomenon involves augmented responsiveness to painful stimulation and may entail a clinically worse prognosis. We used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study pain sensitization in patients with knee osteoarthritis. Sixty patients were recruited and pain sensitization was clinically defined on the basis of regional spreading of pain (spreading sensitization) and increased pain response to repeated stimulation (temporal summation). Functional magnetic resonance imaging testing involved assessing brain responses to both pressure and heat stimulation. Thirty-three patients (55%) showed regional pain spreading (simple sensitization) and 19 patients (32%) showed both regional spreading and temporal summation. Sensitized patients were more commonly women. Direct painful pressure stimulation of the joint (articular interline) robustly activated all of the neural elements typically involved in pain perception, but did not differentiate sensitized and nonsensitized patients. Painful pressure stimulation on the anterior tibial surface (sensitized site) evoked greater activation in sensitized patients in regions typically involved in pain and also beyond these regions, extending to the auditory, visual, and ventral sensorimotor cortices. Painful heat stimulation of the volar forearm did not discriminate the sensitization phenomenon. Results confirm the high prevalence of pain sensitization secondary to knee osteoarthritis. Relevantly, the sensitization phenomenon was associated with neural changes extending beyond strict pain-processing regions with enhancement of activity in general sensory, nonnociceptive brain areas. This effect is in contrast to the changes previously identified in primary pain sensitization in fibromyalgia patients presenting with a weakening of the general sensory integration.

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