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Central Sensitization: The Core of Chronic Pelvic Pain

Assuring patients with chronic pain they are not crazy by explaining the neurophysiology behind what is happening in their brain and body can be life changing. Increasing our patients’ knowledge about physical conditions can reduce anxiety and provide hope. As a healthcare provider, being confident in your differential diagnosis skills can help narrow down the physical source of pain, weed out the psychological components, and connect the dots to the neurological influence on the patient’s persistent symptoms.

A 2015 article in Pain Medicine (Gurian et al) found a direct association between pain sensitivity and treatment of chronic pelvic pain. The study involved 58 women with at least 6 months of pelvic pain, and they were evaluated on pain threshold using transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation before treatment and 6 months after a multidisciplinary approach to treatment of the pelvic pain. Pain intensity was also evaluated using the visual analog scale and the McGill questionnaire. Depending on the specific condition, treatment included manual therapy, physical therapy, pain medications, laparoscopy, oral contraceptives, nutrition intervention, or psychological support. After receiving treatment for 6 months, the pain threshold mean improved from 14.2 to 17.4. The effect sizes of 0.86 in the group with pain reduction and 0.53 in the group not achieving pain reduction were both within the 95% confidence interval. The authors concluded in this study that central sensitization does occur in patients with chronic pelvic pain, and treatment can reduce the general pain sensitivity of the patient.

Kutch et al., (2015) performed a study regarding the change in men’s resting state of neuromotor connectivity as affected by chronic prostatitis or chronic pelvic pain syndrome (CP/CPPS), showing men are also subject to central sensitization. Fifty-five men (28 males with pelvic pain for at least 3 months and 27 healthy males) completed the study, with resting state functional magnetic resonance imaging detecting the functional connectivity of the pelvis with the motor cortex (pelvic-motor). The right posterior insula and pelvic-motor functional connectivity was found to be significantly different in men with chronic pelvic pain and prostatitis versus the healthy control group. Contraction of the pelvic floor corresponded with activation of the medial aspect of the motor cortex, while the left motor cortex was more associated with contraction of the right hand. The authors concluded this relationship may explain the viscerosensory and motor processing changes that occur in men with CP/CPPS and could be the most important marker of brain function alteration in this group of patients.

As more research is being done on the neurophysiological level of pain, more truth can support the “it’s all in your head” accusation. However, it is a positive light to shed for a patient. The brain is powerful and controls how pain is perceived globally. Proper treatment of a chronic pelvic floor condition, for women and men, can help reduce stress on the brain and lessen pain sensitivity and perception in our patients. Never let a patient pursue the self-perception that they are crazy. Explain central sensitization and how sometimes the brain wins in the war of “mind over matter”; however, give them hope, explaining how the proper treatment can lessen the intensity of the battle wounds.


Maria Beatriz Ferreira Gurian, Omero Benedicto Poli Neto, Julio Cesar Rosa e Silva, Antonio Alberto Nogueira, Francisco Jose Candido dos Reis. (2015). Reduction of Pain Sensitivity is Associated with the Response to Treatment in Women with Chronic Pelvic Pain. Pain Medicine. 16 (5) 849-854; DOI: 10.1111/pme.12625
Kutch, J. J., Yani, M. S., Asavasopon, S., Kirages, D. J., Rana, M., Cosand, L., … Mayer, E. A. (2015). Altered resting state neuromotor connectivity in men with chronic prostatitis/chronic pelvic pain syndrome: A MAPP: Research Network Neuroimaging Study. NeuroImage : Clinical8, 493–502. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.nicl.2015.05.013

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