Is traumatic and non-traumatic neck pain associated with brain alterations? : a systematic review


Background: Chronic neck pain affects 50% - 85% of people who have experienced an acute episode. This transition and the persistence of chronic complaints are believed to be mediated by brain alterations among different central mechanisms. Objectives: This study aimed to systematically review and critically appraise the current existing evidence regarding structural and functional brain alterations in patients with whiplash associated disorders (WAD) and idiopathic neck pain (INP). Additionally, associations between brain alterations and clinical symptoms reported in neck pain patients were evaluated. Study Design: Systematic review. Methods: The present systematic review was performed according to the PRISMA guidelines. PubMed, Web of Science, and Cochrane databases were searched. First, the obtained articles were screened based on title and abstract. Secondly, the screening was based on the full text. Risk of bias in included studies was investigated. Results: Twelve studies met the inclusion criteria. Alterations in brain morphology and function, including perfusion, neurotransmission, and blood oxygenation level dependent-signal, were demonstrated in chronic neck pain patients. There is some to moderate evidence for both structural and functional brain alterations in patients with chronic neck pain. In contrast, no evidence for structural brain alterations in acute neck pain patients was found. Limitations: Only 12 articles were included, which allows only cautious conclusions to be drawn. Conclusion: Brain alterations were observed in both patients with chronic WAD and chronic INP. Furthermore, more evidence exists for brain alterations in chronic WAD, and different underlying mechanisms might be present in both pathologies. In addition, pain and disability were correlated with the observed brain alterations. Accordingly, morphological and functional brain alterations should be further investigated in patients with chronic WAD and chronic INP with newer and more sensitive techniques, and associative clinical measurements seem indispensable in future research.