Pain in the Brain: Getting to the Root of Chronic Pain

Pain is a common experience. We all undergo it now and then, at least, but for individuals who suffer chronic pain, the sensation can be unbearable; and for millions of Americans who live with chronic pain every year, not many effective treatments are available.

To put it more precisely, though doctors may offer many different options for controlling chronic pain, in the wake of the opioid epidemic, many have become reticent to offer stronger solutions, even for occasional flare-ups.

What hope is there for chronic-pain sufferers, who are desperate for relief? The answer may lie in identifying the roots of pain in the brain.

Pain Biology

Pain in the Brain

Any time you experience pain – if you cut your hand or stub your toe, for example – the nerves in the region send messages to your brain, which responds with a pain signal back to the injured area. Patients with chronic pain conditions face a situation that’s more complex, however.

Sometimes, similar to acute pain, a persistent injury or source of affliction causes this response to recur nonstop. This happens with arthritis, degenerative disc disease, and many other conditions.

In still other cases of chronic pain, the pain is fundamentally neurological. These patients may experience a process known as central sensitization, in which the brain acts as though there’s an obvious source of pain, but in reality the wellspring no longer exists.

Such patients may be uniquely prone to developing chronic pain due to structural differences in their corticolimbic network, in particular – and this suggests an underlying genetic inclination toward such disorders in this population. Nevertheless, research represents only one approach to the challenge of chronic pain.

 

Molecular Regulation Insights

Another key area of research into the origins and management of chronic pain centers on the molecular processes that trigger the pain response. In neuroscience research funded by the Brain Research Foundation, Dr. Sean Cook examined an ATP receptor known as P2Y2 found on the nociceptors involved in pain response.

By gaining a better understanding of how this receptor is involved in the pain response and which types of response, researchers could potentially develop new interventions centered on blocking or otherwise modifying the site.

 

Developing Novel Treatments

Doctor's Death

Since doctors and researchers have been hard at work on alternative means for treating chronic pain, we have seen some results. First, with regard to the issue of a genetic propensity for chronic pain conditions, certain researchers are hopeful that gene editing could play a role in future pain management.

Instead of emphasizing patients who are prone to chronic pain as their test group, such research locates families who appear to possess a genetic condition that causes insensitivity to pain. Though appealing at first, the condition can be exceedingly dangerous, but by getting to the root of what’s different in this separate group of patients, we may identify ways to mitigate pain in those who experience an excess of suffering.

Another way researchers are targeting the brain’s response to pain with the hope of helping patients involves the use of electrical stimulation to modify pain perception. Nerve stimulation devices can be permanently implanted and programmed based on the individual’s needs and response in order to minimize pain sensation, a process that is already being used in patients with a range of conditions.

Though most patients still aren’t benefiting from new research and interventions, medical researchers are alert to the problem of chronic pain and determined to deliver solutions. Because the opioid epidemic continues to ravage communities across the country, the issue remains near the top for research attention and funding.

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