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MRI Study Reveals Greater Pain Responses in African Americans

Feb 3, 2020

A study shows that images captured using MRI, according to their new research, shows African-American patients feel pain more intensely than patients from other ethnicities.

The findings, published in February, in the article, Nature Human Behavior, contradict the previous belief that African Americans are less sensitive to pain than their white or Hispanic counterparts. The study is believed to have implications for reducing racial and ethnic disparities in patient care. This information should help in potentially building greater trust between patients and doctors when addressing pain management.

“There’s evidence that both the general public and clinicians believe that African Americans are less sensitive to pain than non-Hispanic whites. Yet, research, including our own, shows exactly the opposite. Minorities, particularly African Americans, actually report more pain,” said lead study author Elizabeth Losin, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at the University of Miami, in a press statement. “If medical professionals, whether consciously or unconsciously, believe that African Americans feel less pain that others, clinicians may be less inclined to alleviate the pain of their African American patients.”


The Study Shows…

Using functional MRI, Losin and her colleagues investigated the pain responses of 88 participants. The breakdown was 28 African Americans, 30 Hispanic Americans, and 30 non-Hispanic white Americans. In delivering a focused heat stimulus to the arm, investigators looked for differences in how the brain responded to pain.

Not only did African-American patients verbally report more pain than other individuals, but their MRI scans also revealed heightened activity in two brain areas, the ventral striatum and ventromedial prefrontal cortex.

Existing research shows these regions respond more strongly to pain in patients who live with chronic pain. Losin’s team did note the pain stimulus activated these brain regions in all patients, though not as much as in African Americans.

“These findings exemplify how neuroimaging is teaching us that there are multiple contributions to pain,” he said.

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