Researchers Find New Ways to Study Chronic Pain

Article excerpt

New research is offering hope to the more than 50 million people suffering from pain - not the sharp, short-lived pain of touching a hot stove, but the never-ending agony of chronic pain.

Unpleasant as it may seem to the sufferer, pain is intended to be a protective mechanism. Acute pain, such as when skin meets flame, is the body's way of warning against tissue injury. More persistent pain after a knee or elbow injury alerts the individual to rest the limb to avoid further tissue damage.

But for some people, the pain lingers long after the injury has healed. Chronic pain has baffled researchers since it appears to serve no protective purpose.

"Pain can't be seen. That's the major problem," said Allan Basbaum of the W.M. Keck Center for Integrative Neuroscience at the University of California, San Francisco.

Doctors must guess the cause and the severity of pain based solely on the patient's description. Too often the pain is inadequately treated, whether from ignorance or fear of addiction to painkilling drugs. As a result, pain costs the nation some $100 billion annually in medical expenses and lost productivity.

"Pain is not only a symptom. It's a disease," Mr. Basbaum told a pain management workshop last week sponsored by the American Pain Society.

Nevertheless, specialists certified in pain management are a relatively new development. Groups like the American Pain Society are working to spread the word that specialized pain management can help improve the lives of chronic-pain sufferers.

Gerald F. Gebhart, president of the American Pain Society, said the group is developing pain management guidelines for a variety of diseases, including cancer, HIV infection and AIDS.

Mr. Gebhart, who heads the University of Iowa's pharmacology department, said the complexity of pain mechanisms has been a major obstacle in understanding its cause. But with the help of sophisticated imaging technology, pain researchers are slowly unraveling the mysteries of persistent pain. …