Throbbing pain ‘surprisingly not linked to pulse’

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Toothaches, migraines and a number of other afflictions are often accompanied by that ever-present throbbing pain that seems to follow the beat of an unwelcome drum. Though many patients and physicians alike have long thought the pounding is associated with the heart beating, researchers have found that brain waves are to blame.

The finding comes from neurologists at the University of Florida College of Medicine, led by Dr. Andrew Ahn. They first noticed that the palpitations associated with some forms of pain did not synchronize with those of the heart rate they monitored.

The team notes that previously, physicians have associated “arterial pulsations” with the throbbing that occurs at the site of the injury. In fact, some medicines were designed to constrict blood vessel walls in order to diminish the effect they associated with the heart, they say.

At the time Dr. Ahn and colleagues first noticed throbbing pain did not correlate with heartbeats, there were no further explanations for where throbbing pain is initiated. However, with the researchers’ latest case study, they have found new answers in unexpected places: the brain, to be precise.

Case-study of pain

When Dr. Ahn and colleagues examined a patient with throbbing pain that lingered after a chronic migraine had disappeared, they used an electroencephalogram (EEG) – a device used to record electrical activity in the brain – and discovered that the throbs were linked to alpha waves, a type of brain activity.

Dr. Ahn adds:

“We understand very little about alpha waves, but they appear to have an important role in attention and how we experience the world.

In addition, by analogy to how a radio works, alpha waves may also act as a carrier signal that allows different parts of the brain to communicate with itself.”

His team believes their finding could remarkably change how researchers look for ways to treat pain, and they published their report, appropriately, in the July issue of Pain.

Conventional wisdom gets an overhaul

Though physicians have long believed heartbeats elicit throbbing pain, the belief spans further back than our modern age.

“Aristotle linked throbbing pain to heart rhythm 2,300 years ago,” Dr. Ahn notes. “It took two millennia to discover that his presumption was wrong.”

He adds that current ways of treating pain do not actually relieve it, and they can also have serious side effects. But his team’s findings in this case-study may lead to improved ways of treating those who suffer from pain.

“It turns out that we have been looking in the wrong place all along,” he says.

His team notes that scientists do not fully understand how alpha waves may motivate throbbing pain, but they say understanding how the brain works in this instance will allow the scientific community to build new studies around their finding in order to acquire better ways of treating pain.