Chronic pain patients are impaired on an emotional decision-making task

Pain. 2004 Mar;108(1-2):129-36. doi: 10.1016/j.pain.2003.12.015.


Chronic pain can result in anxiety, depression and reduced quality of life. However, its effects on cognitive abilities have remained unclear although many studies attempted to psychologically profile chronic pain. We hypothesized that performance on an emotional decision-making task may be impaired in chronic pain since human brain imaging studies show that brain regions critical for this ability are also involved in chronic pain. Chronic back pain (CBP) patients, chronic complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS) patients, and normal volunteers (matched for age, sex, and education) were studied on the Iowa Gambling Task, a card game developed to study emotional decision-making. Outcomes on the gambling task were contrasted to performance on other cognitive tasks. The net number of choices made from advantageous decks after subtracting choices made from disadvantageous decks on average was 22.6 in normal subjects (n = 26), 13.4 in CBP patients (n = 26), and -9.5 in CRPS patients (n = 12), indicating poor performance in the patient groups as compared to the normal controls (P < 0.004). Only pain intensity assessed during the gambling task was correlated with task outcome and only in CBP patients (r = -0.75, P < 0.003). Other cognitive abilities, such as attention, short-term memory, and general intelligence tested normal in the chronic pain patients. Our evidence indicates that chronic pain is associated with a specific cognitive deficit, which may impact everyday behavior especially in risky, emotionally laden, situations.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Back Pain / psychology*
  • Chronic Disease
  • Cognition / physiology
  • Complex Regional Pain Syndromes / psychology*
  • Decision Making / physiology*
  • Emotions / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Neuropsychological Tests