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Does cognitive functioning predict chronic pain? Results from a prospective surgical cohort

Nadine Attal, Anne Masselin-Dubois, Valéria Martinez, Christian Jayr, Aline Albi, Jacques Fermanian, Didier Bouhassira, Sophie Baudic
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/brain/awt354 awt354 First published online: 17 January 2014


It is well established that chronic pain impairs cognition, particularly memory, attention and mental flexibility. Overlaps have been found between the brain regions involved in pain modulation and cognition, including in particular the prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex, which are involved in executive function, attention and memory. However, whether cognitive function may predict chronic pain has not been investigated. We addressed this question in surgical patients, because such patients can be followed prospectively and may have no pain before surgery. In this prospective longitudinal study, we investigated the links between executive function, visual memory and attention, as assessed by clinical measurements and the development of chronic pain, its severity and neuropathic symptoms (based on the ‘Douleur Neuropathique 4’ questionnaire), 6 and 12 months after surgery (total knee arthroplasty for osteoarthritis or breast surgery for cancer). Neuropsychological tests included the Trail-Making Test A and B, and the Rey-Osterrieth Complex Figure copy and immediate recall, which assess cognitive flexibility, visuospatial processing and visual memory. Anxiety, depression and coping strategies were also evaluated. In total, we investigated 189 patients before surgery: 96% were re-evaluated at 6 months, and 88% at 12 months. Multivariate logistic regression (stepwise selection) for the total group of patients indicated that the presence of clinical meaningful pain at 6 and 12 months (pain intensity ≥ 3/10) was predicted by poorer cognitive performance in the Trail Making Test B (P = 0.0009 and 0.02 for pain at 6 and 12 months, respectively), Rey-Osterrieth Complex Figure copy (P = 0.015 and 0.006 for pain at 6 and 12 months, respectively) and recall (P = 0.016 for pain at 12 months), independently of affective variables. Linear regression analyses indicated that impaired scores on these tests predicted pain intensity (P < 0.01) and neuropathic symptoms in patients with pain (P < 0.05), although the strength of the association was less robust for neuropathic symptoms. These results were not affected by the type of surgery or presurgical pain, similar findings being obtained specifically for patients who initially had no pain. In conclusion, these findings support, for the first time, the notion that premorbid limited cognitive flexibility and memory capacities may be linked to the mechanisms of pain chronicity and probably also to its neuropathic quality. This may imply that patients with deficits in executive functioning or memory because of cerebral conditions have a greater risk of pain chronicity after a painful event.

  • chronic pain
  • neuropathic pain
  • cognitive flexibility
  • memory
  • attention
  • Abbreviations
    Trail Making Test
    Rey Osterrieth Complex Figure
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