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“Would you describe your pain as being sharp, aching, or throbbing, in nature or do you feel pressure?”

“On a scale of one to 10, how much pain would you say you’re experiencing right now?”

That subjective quiz has pretty much been the method doctors have used for years to determine the kind and severity of pain their patients experience.

But now, researchers from Stanford University in California might be on their way to developing a diagnostic tool which will provide doctors with an objective physiologic assessment of whether someone is in pain.

By using MRI scans of the brain – along with advanced computer algorithms – the researchers were able to accurately predict thermal pain 81 percent of the time in healthy research subjects.

Publishing their findings in the online journal PLoS ONE, the researchers say advances in neuroimaging techniques have renewed interest in pursuing the elusive goal of developing tools to measure pain on a strictly physiologically basis.

They hope their research will eventually result in better methods of detection and treatment of chronic pain.

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The researchers point out that their studies, so far, have really only looked at thermal pain. They stress that further work and study will need to be done in order to determine whether their testing methods can determine other kinds of pain, such as chronic pain, and whether they can properly and accurately distinguish between physical pain and other emotionally arousing states, such as anxiety or depression.

A tool that can accurately measure pain could also have legal ramifications, according to Stanford law professor Hank Greely, an expert on the legal, ethical and social issues involving the biosciences.

“A robust, accurate way to determine whether someone is in pain or not would be a godsend for the legal system,” said Greely, who was not associated with the study.

The idea for the study took root at a 2009 Stanford Law School event organized by Greely, in which neuroscientists and legal scholars discussed how neuroimaging pain could be utilized, as well as abused, in legal proceedings.