From the Archives: Finding the Hurt in Pain

Pain has many varieties, and is notoriously difficult to describe, but in recent years researchers have made some progress in trying to measure it. A story in the New Yorker this summer by Nicola Twilley, “The Neuroscience of Pain,” describes the quest “to capture the experience in quantifiable, objective data,” especially imaging data.

Irene_TraceyTwilley details the research life of Irene Tracey at University of Oxford, including tools in her lab’s “pain room”: “All of them have been designed with the aim of reliably producing in laboratory conditions sensations that hurt enough to mirror real life but don’t cause lasting harm, which would be unethical. A scientist hoping to gather publishable data can’t just hit someone with a hammer and hope that each blow is as hard as the last one, even if an institutional ethics committee would permit such a thing.”

Tracey wrote a piece for us for Cerebrum in December 2016, “Finding the Hurt in Pain,” reviewing what we know so far about pain, including how mood affects it, the role of placebos, and potential neuroethical issues. One big change in recent decades is how we consider chronic pain, she writes:

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From the Archives: The State of Pain Research

cerebrum_0612_painNearly four years ago, we ran a news story that asked, “Is the neuroscientific study of pain lagging?” From the 2011 story, by Kayt Sukel:

Earlier this year, scientists, politicians and other healthcare advocates came together to share their hopes for the next decade of neuroscience research at the One Mind for Research (OMR) Summit in Boston. At a session highlighting the neurobiological consequences of war, Clifford J. Woolf, a pain researcher at Harvard Medical School and Children’s Hospital Boston, stated, “We have made enormous progress in promoting survival…but, in fact, an area that has really lagged behind relates to the pain associated with combat injury.”

The word that many locked on to in that statement was lagged. In a variety of publications and meetings in the past few years, the idea that the study and treatment of pain, particularly chronic or neuropathic pain, is somehow behind where it should be keeps coming to the surface—and that is whether it’s pain associated with combat, cancer, or some other disease state. But with more than a dozen research journals dedicated solely to the topic of pain and thousands of new pain-related papers being published each year, does a word like lagged accurately reflect the state of its study?

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Seeing Pain

From left, Mark Frankel of AAAS, Cindy Steinberg, David Thomas, Edward Bilsky, and David Borsook.]

From left, Mark Frankel of AAAS, Cindy Steinberg, David Thomas, Edward Bilsky, and David Borsook.

Chronic pain affects more than 100 million people in the United States and is a leading cause of suicide as well as an economic drain of more than a half-trillion dollars a year, according to the Institute of Medicine. It’s also one of the “invisible” disorders, like depression, and people who have chronic pain can find themselves misunderstood, shunned, and locked out of the treatment they need. Worse, in many cases, there is no good treatment.

“We really need to accelerate research into the neuroscience and neurobiology of pain,” said activist and chronic-pain patient Cindy Steinberg during a panel discussion on the topic at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Washington, DC, on Wednesday.

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