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Doctor treats pain without pills

An experiment is under way at Stanford University to help people control chronic pain — right at its source — in their own brains. NBC's Robert Bazell reports.

The image is fire — a computerized display generated directly from signals in a human brain. The size of the flame shows the level of pain sensation. It is part of an experimental technology to help people control chronic pain — right at its source — in their own brains.

Seven years ago Laura Tibbits was riding a horse. 

"I was thrown off and broke my shoulder," Tibbits recalls.

As happens to millions of people, the injury seemed to heal, but the pain never went away. 

"I probably had every sort of sensation of pain from tingling to sharp to numb," Tibbits says. "Right now I'm having a couple spasms in my back."

When Tibbits got a job at Stanford University, she learned of the experiment there headed by Dr. Sean Mackey for chronic pain patients.

"They can see what's going on in their brain," Mackey says, "and in doing so, take control of their pain and see a reduction in it."

In the experiment, Tibbits goes into a brain scanner. Her first task is to make her injury hurt as much as possible. This shows the researchers what brain areas are activated by her pain, and that gets translated into the rising flame. A flame, says Mackey, is an excellent representation of pain.

Tibbits then uses breathing techniques, pleasant thoughts, muscle relaxation — any tool of biofeedback — to lower the brain activity and reduce the pain. She says it helps.

"It was almost like mind aerobics," Tibbits says, "where I was exercising my mind to try to reduce the amount of pain."

The hope is that this research can eventually help people, even without access to this high-technology equipment, learn how to control their chronic pain.