Evidence for working memory deficits in chronic pain: A systematic review and meta-analysis

Summary: Pooled results from behavioural outcome measures of working memory show chronic pain is associated with impaired working memory. A consistent, moderate significant effect is shown in this systematic review and meta-analysis of 24 studies.Abstract: People with chronic pain commonly report impaired cognitive function. However, to date, there has been no systematic evaluation of the body of literature concerning cognitive impairment and pain. Nor have modern meta-analytical methods been used to verify and clarify the extent to which cognition may be impaired. The objective of this study was to systematically evaluate and critically appraise the literature concerning working memory function in people with chronic pain. The study was conducted along Cochrane collaboration and Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses (PRISMA) statement guidelines. A sensitive search strategy was designed and conducted with the help of an expert librarian using 6 databases. Twenty-four observational studies evaluating behavioural and/or physiological outcomes in a chronic pain group and a control group met the inclusion criteria. All studies had a high risk of bias, owing primarily to lack of assessor blinding to outcome. High heterogeneity within the field was found with the inclusion of 24 papers using 21 different working memory tests encompassing 9 different working memory constructs and 9 different chronic pain populations. Notwithstanding high heterogeneity, pooled results from behavioural outcomes reflected a consistent, significant moderate effect in favour of better performance by healthy controls and, with the exception of one study, pooled results from physiological outcomes reflected no evidence for an effect. Future research would benefit from the use of clearly defined constructs of working memory, as well as standardised methods of testing.
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