Pressure application to the lumbar spine is an important assessment and treatment method of low back pain. However, few studies have characterized brain activation patterns in response to mechanical pressure. The objective of this study was to map brain activation associated with various levels of mechanical pressure to the lumbar spine in healthy subjects. Fifteen healthy subjects underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanning while mechanical pressure was applied to their lumbar spine with a custom-made magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)-compatible pressure device. Each subject received three levels of pressure (low/medium/high) based on subjective ratings determined prior to the scan using a block design (pressure/rest). Pressure rating was assessed with an 11-point scale (0 = no touch; 10 = max pain-free pressure). Brain activation differences between pressure levels and rest were analyzed. Subjective pressure ratings were significantly different across pressure levels (p
< 0.05). The overall brain activation pattern was not different across pressure levels (all p
> 0.05). However, the overall effect of pressure versus rest showed significant decreases in brain activation in response to the mechanical stimulus in regions associated with somatosensory processing including the precentral gyri, left hippocampus, left precuneus, left medial frontal gyrus, and left posterior cingulate. There was increase in brain activation in the right inferior parietal lobule and left cerebellum. This study offers insight into the neural mechanisms that may relate to manual mobilization intervention used for managing low back pain.
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