NeuRA Magazine #20

SLEEP AND BACK PAIN

A new study that seeks to find improved ways to deal with back pain seeks participants.

Edel O’Hagan with a volunteer

Back pain researchers at NeuRA know that there is a shared relationship between sleep and pain. Typically, the higher the pain intensity the worse a person sleeps. Conversely, after a few bad nights’ sleep a person with lower back pain may perceive their pain to be even worse.

PhD student and physiotherapist Edel O’Hagan is currently working on a study that investigates whether using a medication, usually used for sleep disturbances can help people with acute back pain – that is, pain that has lasted less than three months.

“In this trial we are investigating whether improving sleep has a knock-on effect on improving lower back pain intensity,” she explains.

The medication used in the study acts on a neurotransmitter called GABA, which has a number of roles in the brain, but is primarily involved in calming overexcited neurons, such as those involved in transmitting pain.

The procedure involves a visit to NeuRA, where participants are reviewed by a physician and given the intervention tablets – either a sleep medication or a sugar pill. They take one tablet a night for 14 nights. Over this time participants keep a sleep diary and wear a monitor on their back to measure movements during sleep. They will also fill out questionnaires, online on day one, at two weeks and at six weeks.

“Participants don’t need to change anything they are currently doing to manage their back pain,” Edel assures.

It is hoped that this research will identify a new way to stop low back pain from developing into a long-term chronic condition.

Edel, who is part of the McAuley group, is looking to recruit more patients for the study. To get involved, email pain@neura.edu.au or call 02 9399 1618.

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The majority of adults without a mental illness still experience poor mental health, indicating a need for a better understanding of what separates mental wellness from mental illness. One way of exploring what separates those with good mental health from those with poor mental health is to use electroencephalography (EEG) to explore differences in brain activity within the healthy population. Previous research has shown that EEG measures differ between clinical groups and healthy participants, suggesting that these measures are useful indicators of mental functioning. Miranda Chilver’s current project aims to examine how different EEG measures relate to each other and to test if they can be used to predict mental wellbeing. Furthermore, she hopes to distinguish between EEG markers of symptoms including depression and anxiety, and markers of positive symptoms of wellbeing to better understand how wellbeing can exist independently of mental illness. This will be done by obtaining measures of wellbeing and depression and anxiety symptoms using the COMPAS-W and DASS-42 questionnaires, respectively. Because EEG measures and mental wellbeing are both impacted by genetics as well as the environment, Miranda will also be testing whether the links found between EEG activity and Wellbeing are driven primarily by heritable or by environmental factors. This information will inform the development of future interventions that will aim to improve wellbeing in the general population. To achieve these goals, the project will assess the relationship between EEG activity and wellbeing, and between EEG and depression and anxiety symptoms to first test whether there is an association between EEG and mental health. Second, the heritability of the EEG, wellbeing, depression, and anxiety will be assessed to determine the extent to which these variables are explained through heritable or environmental factors. Finally, a model assessing the overlap between the heritable versus environmental contributions to each measure will be developed to assess whether genetics or environment drive the relationship between EEG and mental health. This project is based on a sample of over 400 healthy adult twins from the Australian TWIN-E study of resilience led by Dr Justine Gatt. This research will pave the way for improved mental health interventions based on individual needs.
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