Accumulated evidence from experimental animal models suggests that neuroplastic changes at the dorsal horn are critical for the maintenance of various chronic musculoskeletal pain conditions. However, to date, no study has specifically investigated whether neuroplastic changes also occur at this level in humans. Using brain imaging techniques, we sought to determine whether anatomical changes were present in the medullary dorsal horn (spinal trigeminal nucleus caudalis) in subjects with the chronic musculoskeletal pain. In twenty-two subjects with painful temporomandibular disorders (TMDs) and forty pain-free controls voxel based morphometry of T1-weighted anatomical images and diffusion tensor images were used to assess regional grey matter volume and microstructural changes within the brainstem and, in addition, the integrity of ascending pain pathways. Voxel based morphometry revealed significant regional grey matter volume decreases in the medullary dorsal horn, in conjunction with alterations in diffusivity properties, namely an increase in mean diffusivity, in TMD subjects. Volumetric and mean diffusivity changes also occurred in TMD subjects in regions of the descending pain modulation system, including the midbrain periaqueductal grey matter and nucleus raphe magnus. Finally, tractography revealed altered diffusivity properties, namely decreased fractional anisotropy, in the root entry zone of the trigeminal nerve, the spinal trigeminal tract and the ventral trigeminothalamic tracts of TMD subjects. These data reveal that chronic musculoskeletal pain in humans is associated with discrete alterations in the anatomy of the medullary dorsal horn, as well as its afferent and efferent projections. These neural changes may be critical for the maintenance of pathological pain.
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