Pain management is a surprisingly challenging, complex balancing act. Overtreating pain, for example, runs the risk of addicting patients to pain medication. Undertreating pain, on the other hand, may lead to long-term chronic pain and other complications. Today, doctors generally gauge pain levels according to their patients’ own reports of how they’re feeling. But what about patients who can’t communicate how they’re feeling effectively — or at all — such as children, elderly patients with dementia, or those undergoing surgery?

In a paper presented at the International Conference on Affective Computing and Intelligent Interaction, the researchers describe a method to quantify pain in patients. To do so, they leverage an emerging neuroimaging technique called functional near infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS), in which sensors placed around the head measure oxygenated hemoglobin concentrations that indicate neuron activity.

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