Pain sensitivity and the brain structure are critical in modulating pain and may contribute to the maintenance of pain in older adults. However, a paucity of evidence exists investigating the link between pain sensitivity and brain morphometry in older adults. The purpose of the study was to identify pain sensitivity profiles in healthy, community-dwelling older adults using a multimodal quantitative sensory testing protocol and to differentiate profiles based on brain morphometry.
Materials and Methods:
This study was a secondary analysis of the Neuromodulatory Examination of Pain and Mobility Across the Lifespan (NEPAL) study. Participants completed demographic and psychological questionnaires, quantitative sensory testing, and a neuroimaging session. A Principal Component Analysis with Varimax rotation followed by hierarchical cluster analysis identified 4 pain sensitivity clusters (the “pain clusters”).
Sixty-two older adults ranging from 60 to 94 years old without a specific pain condition (mean [SD] age=71.44 [6.69] y, 66.1% female) were analyzed. Four pain clusters were identified characterized by (1) thermal pain insensitivity; (2) high pinprick pain ratings and pressure pain insensitivity; (3) high thermal pain ratings and high temporal summation; and (4) thermal pain sensitivity, low thermal pain ratings, and low mechanical temporal summation. Sex differences were observed between pain clusters. Pain clusters 2 and 4 were distinguished by differences in the brain cortical volume in the parieto-occipital region.
While sufficient evidence exists demonstrating pain sensitivity profiles in younger individuals and in those with chronic pain conditions, the finding that subgroups of experimental pain sensitivity also exist in healthy older adults is novel. Identifying these factors in older adults may help differentiate the underlying mechanisms contributing to pain and aging.