What’s the Latest on Pain Science?

The latest in pain science includes virtual reality, new understandings in pain science, plus the potential to edit pain out of our genes?

The landscape of chronic pain is changing all the time. Advances in science, medicine and technology mean that more is being uncovered about how pain affects us, what causes it, and – most importantly – how we can manage it.

But given that these types of advancements can occur so rapidly, it can be hard to keep up with the latest. So, here are the most recent, most interesting advances in pain science, and how they can help chronic pain sufferers.

Virtual Reality Can Help Chronic Pain

Virtual reality has become largely synonymous with entertainment and gaming, but did you know that it could potentially aid in the management of pain?

Various studies are showing great promise in utilising virtual reality for effective management of various pains, from spinal cord injuries, orthopedic rehabilitation and also in both acute and chronic pain sufferers.

One specific study conducted at the Imperial College London found that viewing icy landscapes through VR headsets minimised pain felt by the experiment’s subjects. Researchers found that their subjects experienced a lowered sensitivity to external pain stimuli, as well as reduced levels of perceived pain.

Doctor Sam Hughes, a resident psychologist at the college, believes that “if VR can reduce some types of pain, it could become a new therapy with fewer side effects than drugs. And it would be less expensive.”

There would also be benefits regarding the lack of potential addiction, that is so often the case with medications prescribed for chronic pain.

Here at Pathways, we’ve begun R&D into adding immersive, pain relieving experiences to our pain relief app. We’re really excited about how this might help patients, and will keep you posted on developments via our blog and social media.

Pain Can Act Like Our Memories

When it comes to pain, there are three main types that medical professionals will categorise pain into. These are:

  • Neuropathic pain, which involves damage to the nervous system such as diabetes, stroke and spinal cord injuries
  • Inflammatory pain, which can occur after injury and/or illness, and
  • Nociceptive pain, which is when there is an outside stimulus that injures the human form, such as accidentally cutting a finger with a knife or pulling a muscle during exercise

Recent research on neuropathic pain has theorised that when this type of pain becomes chronic, it can reorganise neurons and cause the brain to make new, abnormal connections. This may lead to abnormal neuronal plasticity, called “unhelpful neuroplasticity”, which encourages ‘pathways’ to be formed. And for chronic pain sufferers, this might not be the best thing. 

You may have heard the saying “neurons that fire together wire together”, which is a common phrase in neuroscience that basically means the more you run a connection in your brain, the stronger it becomes. So when it comes to chronic pain, if abnormal neuronal plasticity is formed, the sensation becomes like a maladaptive memory. This ‘locks in’ the feeling and subsequently causes it to loop over and over again, even after the specific cause of the pain has subsided. 

Consider it as though the body’s alarm bells have gotten stuck on the ‘on’ position, and that encourages these ‘pain loops’ to keep persisting. Our pain system becomes overprotective and sensitized.

Pain loops can be triggered by things like psychological and physical stress, and have a number of other negative side effects like lack of sleep, low energy, and feelings of negativity and/or depression. 

Luckily, effective pain management techniques can re-teach the brain to gradually lessen the response given off by the nervous system, which reduces those alarm bells and decreases pain. Patients can use helpful activities to reprogramme the neuroplasticity, such as mindfulness meditation and yoga. Physical movement like exercise can also help reduce the feelings of sensitivity and pain. Further, there are pain medications available to aid in dealing with it while neuro pathways are reformed through concurrent treatments.

Can Your Pain Be Edited Out?

Wouldn’t it be amazing if, just like a typo in an email, you could edit out your feelings of chronic pain? Well, as scientists have recently found, that might not be too impossible to do. Navega Therapeutics Inc, a preclinical company that works towards putting an end to the opioid epidemic by focusing on radically different treatments of chronic pain, has conducted preliminary studies on mice and found that it’s potentially possible to change a person’s DNA in a way that silences the gene that transmits pain signals. This is done by the use of precision gene-editing technology known as CRISPR, which has been largely used in the past to aid in patients suffering from rare hereditary diseases.

CRISPR works to make selected alterations to DNA through a technology called epigenome editing. It has a number of positive benefits, including the inability for patients to become addicted to it, a potential outcome when using other pain medications such as opioids and morphine. While it’s still a few years off being available to everyone, scientists are hoping to begin human trials as early as this year.

With such amazing advances in pain science happening every day in the medical world, it’s essential for patients to keep as up-to-date as possible. New technologies are leading to relief from chronic pain, and these technologies could make a world of difference for patients just like you.

 

Please note: This article is made available for educational purposes only, not to provide personal medical
advice.

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