Recent advances in imaging have improved our understanding of the role of the brain in painful conditions. Discoveries of morphological changes have been made in patients with chronic pain, with little known about the functional consequences when they occur in areas associated with ‘number-sense’; thus, it can be hypothesized that chronic pain impairs this sense.
First, an audit of the use of numbers in gold-standard pain assessment tools in patients with acute and chronic pain was undertaken. Secondly, experiments were conducted with patients with acute and chronic pain and healthy controls. Participants marked positions of numbers on lines (number marking), before naming numbers on pre-marked lines (number naming). Finally, subjects bisected lines flanked with ‘2’ and ‘9’. Deviations from expected responses were determined for each experiment.
Four hundred and ninety-four patients were audited; numeric scores in the ‘moderate’ and ‘severe’ pain categories were significantly higher in chronic compared with acute pain patients. In experiments (n=150), more than one-third of chronic pain patients compared with 1/10th of controls showed greater deviations from the expected in number marking and naming indicating impaired number sense. Line bisection experiments suggest prefrontal and parietal cortical dysfunction as cause of this impairment.
Audit data suggest patients with chronic pain interpret numbers differently from acute pain sufferers. Support is gained by experiments indicating impaired number sense in one-third of chronic pain patients. These results cast doubts on the appropriateness of the use of visual analogue and numeric rating scales in chronic pain in clinics and research.