fMRI Brain Scanning: The Future of Proving Pain?

Many disability claimants suffering from chronic, intense pain are surprised and disheartened when their reported pain levels are received with skepticism by their insurance company.  Since pain is a subjective feeling, treating doctors typically ask patients to self-report their pain on a scale of 0-10, so that they can diagnose and treat the pain.  Unfortunately, most insurance companies are unwilling to accept self-reported pain levels and will often try to downplay the severity of the claimant’s pain, citing a lack of objective evidence.

Recently, researchers have developed a technology called functional MRI scans, or fMRIs, for short, which may provide a new way to objectively verify the existence of pain.  In this post, we will examine this technology and discuss how it might be used in the context of disability claims.

What is an fMRI?

fMRI scanning is a noninvasive technique used by doctors to map and measure brain activity.  More specifically, fMRIs are used to measure and observe increases in MR signal caused by neural activity in the brain.  The fMRI data is then analyzed to determine which parts of the brain were active during the scan.  The data is then compared to known neurological signatures, or “biomarkers,” to determine if there are any correlations between the neural activity in the brain and the symptoms reported by the patient (such as chronic pain).

The Use of fMRI Scans to Prove Pain

Recently, a number of companies and researchers are focusing on using fMRI scans to produce objective evidence of pain.  For instance, Dr. Joy Hirsch, a professor at the Yale School of Medicine, claims to have developed a test that is capable of distinguishing real, chronic pain from imagined pain.

fMRI scans are also now being used to support the cases of claimants in disability cases. For example, a woman in New York recently used an fMRI scan to convince her insurer, after two years of litigation, that her disability claim never should have been denied.  An fMRI scan was also recently used in the case of Carl Koch, a truck driver from Arizona who suffered severe burns when the hose of his tanker broke loose and sprayed him with molten tar.  Mr. Koch visited Dr. Hirsch, who used functional brain mapping to conclude that Mr. Koch’s pain was real.  When the judge ruled that Dr. Hirsch’s testimony would be admissible at trial, the case settled for $800,000 – an amount ten times higher than the company’s original offer.

What the Skeptics Say

The use of fMRI scans to prove pain remains controversial. Some critics argue that the techniques being used in litigation have little support in existing publications.  Others, such as Tor Wager, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at UC Boulder, contend that the sample size in available studies is too small.  Proponents of fMRI refute both of these claims, arguing that a number of credible studies support the validity of their methods.

 The Future of fMRI Scans in Disability Cases

It’s easy to see how fMRI scans could prove useful in a disability claim.  For example, many dentists suffer from musculoskeletal disorders, particularly in their spines, that cause chronic, debilitating pain.  However, as noted above, these types of claims can be particularly difficult, because many insurance companies refuse to accept a claimant’s self-reported pain levels and limitations.  Co-workers, family, and friends can provide statements describing how the dentist’s pain is affecting his performance at work and his quality of life, but once again, insurance companies will typically similarly claim that such statements are “objectively verifiable” evidence of the pain.  Sometimes a cervical or lumbar MRI can identify potential causes for the pain, and/or a functional capacity exam (FCE) can help document the limitations the pain is causing—but these types of reports are also commonly challenged by insurance companies intent on denying benefits.

In such a case, an fMRI scan illustrating the doctor’s pain might serve as an additional, objectively verifiable method of establishing the existence of chronic pain.  Whether or not insurance companies are willing to accept fMRIs as reliable evidence of pain remains to be seen, and will likely depend, in large part, on how willing courts are to accept fMRIs as admissible evidence of pain.  If, in the future, this technology continues to develop and become more precise, and courts and juries demonstrate a willingness to accept fMRIs as proof of pain, fMRIs may eventually be enough to convince insurance companies to accept legitimate disability claims without ever setting foot in a courtroom.

REFERENCES:

  1. UC San Diego Sch. of Med., What is fMRI?, available at http://fmri.ucsd.edu/Research/whatisfmri.html.
  1. Sushrut Jangi, Measuring Pain Using Functional MRI, The New England Journal of Medicine, available at http://blogs.nejm.org/now/index.php/9863/2013/04/10/.
  1. Steven Levy, Brain Imaging of Pain Brings Success to Disability Claim, EIN Presswire (June 29, 2016), available at http://www.einpresswire.com/article/333249721/brain-imaging-of-pain-brings-success-to-disability-claim.
  1. Kevin Davis, Personal Injury Lawyers Turn to Neuroscience to Back Claims of Chronic Pain, ABA Journal (Mar. 1, 2016), available at http://www.abajournal.com/magazine/article/personal_injury_lawyers_turn_to_neuroscience_to_back_claims_of_chronic_pain.