New study could lead to better treatment for veterans’ chronic pain


By Laurel White

A new study from UW-Madison researchers could lead to more effective chronic pain treatment for Gulf War veterans. 

According to the study, which was published this month in the journal JNeurosci, Gulf War veterans who experience chronic pain have larger pain-processing regions and smaller pain regulation regions in their brains than their healthy peers. The finding — which shows pain symptoms stem from the structure of the central nervous system, rather than issues with nerves or pain receptors — could help researchers create more effective pain treatments in the future.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, several studies have shown that about one third of veterans who served in the Persian Gulf War experience what’s known as “Gulf War Illness.” That illness encompasses a wide range of long-term health problems, including muscle and joint pain, fatigue, and cognitive difficulty.

brain model
A new study from UW-Madison researchers sheds light on brain matter differences in veterans who suffer from chronic pain.

Jacob Ninneman, a PhD student in the School of Education’s Department of Kinesiology, was the lead author of the study. He says chronic pain is a major problem for many Gulf War veterans, but its causes have been poorly understood. He hopes the study advances that understanding — and sheds light on the severity of chronic pain. 

“I hope people will understand that chronic pain is a serious issue, and that it carries wide-ranging consequences,” he said. “It has both behavioral impacts, demonstrated by worse mood, greater levels of fatigue, and lower levels of self-reported function, and biological impacts, demonstrated by the differences in gray matter volumes in those crucial brain regions.”

The study involved about 150 Gulf War veterans and involved magnetic resonance imaging, pain and fatigue symptom questionnaires, and device-based measurements of physical activity. It was funded by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.  

Ninneman worked alongside a team of researchers including kinesiology professor Dane B. Cook, who has worked for years on the study of Gulf War Illness, including the use of exercise as a treatment for its associated pain.  

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