Morphological changes of the limbic system associated with acute and chronic low-back pain: A UK biobank imaging study

Eur J Pain. 2024 Apr;28(4):608-619. doi: 10.1002/ejp.2206. Epub 2023 Nov 27.


Background: Low back pain (LBP) is a major public health issue that influences physical and emotional factors integral to the limbic system. This study aims to investigate the association between LBP and brain morphometry alterations as the duration of LBP increases (acute vs. chronic).

Methods: We used the UK Biobank data to investigate the morphological features of the limbic system in acute LBP (N = 115), chronic LBP (N = 243) and controls (N = 358), and tried to replicate our findings with an independent dataset composed of 45 acute LBP participants evaluated at different timepoints throughout 1 year from the OpenPain database.

Results: We found that in comparison with chronic LBP and pain-free controls, acute LBP was associated with increased volumes of the nucleus accumbens, amygdala, hippocampus, and thalamus, and increased grey matter volumes in the hippocampus and posterior cingulate gyrus. In the replication cohort, we found non-significantly larger hippocampus and thalamus volumes in the 3-month visit (acute LBP) compared to the 1-year visit (chronic LBP), with similar effect sizes as the UK Biobank dataset.

Conclusions: Our results suggest that acute LBP is associated with dramatic morphometric increases in the limbic system and mesolimbic pathway, which may reflect an active brain response and self-regulation in the early stage of LBP.

Significance: Our study suggests that LBP in the acute phase is associated with the brain morphometric changes (increase) in some limbic areas, indicating that the acute phase of LBP may represent a crucial stage of self-regulation and active response to the disease's onset.

MeSH terms

  • Acute Pain*
  • Biological Specimen Banks
  • Brain
  • Chronic Pain*
  • Humans
  • Limbic System / diagnostic imaging
  • Low Back Pain* / diagnostic imaging
  • Low Back Pain* / psychology
  • UK Biobank