Chronic pain precedes disrupted eating behavior in low-back pain patients

Chronic pain is associated with anhedonia and decreased motivation. These behavioral alterations have been linked to alterations in the limbic brain and could explain the increased risk for obesity in pain patients. The mechanism of these behavioral changes and how they set in in relation to the development of chronic pain remain however poorly understood. Here we asked how eating behavior was affected in low-back pain patients before and after they transitioned to chronic pain, compared to patients whose pain subsided. Additionally, we assessed how the hedonic perception of fat-rich food, which is altered in chronic pain patients, related to the properties of the nucleus accumbens in this patients’ population. We hypothesized that the accumbens would be directly implicated in the hedonic processing of fat-rich food in pain patients because of its well-established role in hedonic feeding and fat ingestion, and its emerging role in chronic pain. Accordingly, we used behavioral assays and structural brain imaging to test sub-acute back pain patients (SBP) and healthy control subjects at baseline and at approximately one-year follow-up. We also studied a sample of chronic low-back pain patients (CLBP) at one time point only. We found that SBP patients who recovered at follow-up (SBPr) and CLBP patients showed disrupted eating behaviors. In contrast, SBP patients who persisted in having pain at follow-up (SBPp) showed intact eating behavior. From a neurological standpoint, only SBPp and CLBP patients showed a strong and direct relationship between hedonic perception of fat-rich food and nucleus accumbens volume.

This suggests that accumbens alterations observed in SBPp patients in previous works might protect them from hedonic eating disruptions during the early course of the illness. We conclude that disrupted eating behavior specifically sets in after pain chronification and is accompanied by structural changes in the nucleus accumbens.