Newsweek on Chronic Pain Research & Treatment

Pain research and treatment are the topics of this week’s Newsweek cover story. The article centers on chronic pain caused by physical injuries in war, but it has gems for anyone with chronic pain. There’s a great illustration of how opioids and nerve blockers affect pain signals in the Pain and its Pathways graphic.

“‘The public understanding of pain has been that it’s a stubbed toe or a broken bone,’ says Will Rowe, executive director of the American Pain Foundation. ‘But that’s just one aspect of it. Now there’s a growing awareness that pain is a disease of its own.’

“This is far more than a semantic change, Rowe adds: it’s ‘tectonic.’ Docs now know that the brain and spinal cord rewire themselves in response to injuries, forming ‘pain pathways’ that can become pathologically overactive years later. They are trying to sever this maladaptive mind-body connection with a host of new drugs and approaches. Some focus on recently discovered chemical receptors in the brain and muscles. Others pack all the punch of narcotics with less of the specter of addiction. . . . New types of electrical stimulators targeting the brain, the spine and the muscles hit the market almost every year. Fentanyl skin patches, first introduced in 1990, have evolved into a patient-controlled, push-button device called IONSYS, available by the end of this year.”

Later in the article:

“Some of the most promising pain treatments of the past decade have turned out to be disappointments. Studies of some radiofrequency therapies show they work no better than placebos. Spinal-fusion surgery, a recent review found, has ‘no acceptable evidence’ to support it. And if a treatment does work, says Edward Covington, a pain specialist at the Cleveland Clinic, ‘for most people, the effect is temporary.’ There is no cure for chronic pain, period.

“There’s not even any ‘single drug or technology alone’ that can treat all the types of pain, says Eugene Viscusi, director of acute-pain management at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia. Most people need two or three therapies in combination. Scientists’ new understanding of pain’s broad effects on many levels of the nervous system explains why: a multipart syndrome requires multipart therapy. Viscusi notes that patients under anesthesia still have elevated levels of the pain enzyme Cox-2 in their spinal fluid following surgery. They may not feel pain, but some parts of their brains still think they’re in it. For any treatment to work long term, it will have to address not just the immediate sensation of pain but the other, subtler aspects—and there are surely some of those that scientists don’t know about yet.”

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