OBJECTIVES: The purpose of this systematic review is to analyze the available literature on structural and functional brain abnormalities in chronic low back pain (CLBP) using several brain magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) techniques.
METHODS: PubMed and Web of Science were systematically screened for relevant literature using different combinations of keywords regarding structural and functional brain imaging techniques in patients with CLBP. Reference lists of included articles were hand-searched for additional literature. Eligible articles were assessed on risk of bias and reviewed by two independent researchers.
RESULTS: The search query returned 27 articles meeting the inclusion criteria. Methodological quality varied from poor to good. A total of 10 studies evaluated structural gray matter changes. There is conflicting evidence in global gray matter changes, with both increases and decreases shown in different studies. Gray matter changes were demonstrated in specific brain regions. Structural white matter changes were reported in five studies. There is conflicting evidence in total white matter volume due to both increases and unchanged white matter. Several regional differences were identified in which white matter changes were shown. Functional organization during rest was evaluated in 10 studies. CLBP patients showed increased activation in specific regions, together with a disrupted default mode network. A total of six studies evaluated brain activity in response to a nociceptive stimulus. Findings suggest that patients demonstrated increased activity in pain-related regions, and decreased activity in analgesic regions.
CONCLUSIONS: Overall, there is moderate evidence for regional changes in gray and white matter, together with an altered functional connectivity during rest and increased activity in pain-related areas following painful stimulation, evidencing an upregulated pain matrix. More longitudinal research is needed to clarify the temporal relationship regarding pain and neuroplastic changes, and integration of different brain imaging techniques is warranted.