Pain is an unavoidable fact of life, especially for those with a chronic pain condition. There are dozens of potential treatments for pain already, but researchers are always searching for a deeper understanding of pain to help them devise even better treatments.

One group of researchers has found a way to cut off the communication of pain in the brain.

At the University of Calgary’s Hotchkiss Brain Institute, neuroscientist Gerald Zamponi, PhD, and his team have found a way to shut off pain signals. Calcium channels in the brain and peripheral nervous system are part of the line of communications to transmit pain signals. Because of this, calcium channels have been a focus of pain research for quite a while. Zamponi and his team have found that by interfering with a specific enzyme’s communication with the calcium channels, the nerve impulses are interrupted.

The researchers in this study are currently looking at more than 100,000 molecules. They’re trying to find one that will successfully stop the communication between the enzyme and the calcium channel, thereby stopping the pain signal. Two viable molecules have already been identified as painkillers in animals.

If these researchers are able to isolate the correct molecule to create the same effect in humans, it could potentially be turned into a drug. A drug like this could provide a new pain-relief option for people who suffer from all sorts of pain conditions, such as arthritis or neuropathic pain.

A better understanding of how different populations experience pain can help physicians manage their patients’ pain more effectively.

A few factors that decrease an individual’s pain tolerance have been identified. These include:

  • Depression or anxiety
  • Not exercising
  • Smoking
  • Obesity
  • Genetics
  • Chronic conditions
  • Past injury

There are also a few odd factors that influence an individual’s ability to tolerate pain. For example, one study suggested that right-handed people were more tolerant of pain than left-handed people. Some research also suggests that natural redheads may be more sensitive to pain.

Additionally, gender has an effect on pain sensations. More women report pain than men, and women are generally believed to be more sensitive to pain. It’s been assumed that women may be more tolerant of pain, as well, but a new study challenges this assumption.

First it’s important to understand the difference between pain sensitivity and pain tolerance. Pain sensitivity refers to the pain threshold, or when an individual begins to perceive stimulation as painful. Pain tolerance is the level of pain an individual is able to tolerate.

Researchers at Malaga University have found that there is no difference in pain tolerance between men and women. Rather, the characteristics of each individual determine his or her ability to tolerate pain. Resilience was identified as the most important factor in determining pain tolerance. People who are resilient are more likely to accept their pain. Accepting the pain, rather than focusing on it to the exclusion of everything else, allows individuals to focus on increasing their quality of life instead. Resilient people generally feel less pain, stay more active, and have a better overall mood.

In addition to acceptance of pain and individual resilience, fear of pain was identified as a central variable in people’s pain experiences. People who are afraid of pain experience more anxiety and depression. This ties into the only difference identified between men’s and women’s pain experiences: in men, a fear of pain also related to a greater degree of pain.

Another study has identified several specific genes that affect an individual’s pain tolerance.

A group of researchers looked at 2,721 people who have been diagnosed with chronic pain. Participants rated their pain perception on a scale that was divided into low, moderate, and high pain groups. Researchers then checked the participants for specific genes, COMT, DRD2, DRD1, and OPRK1, and found the following statistics:

  • DRD1 variant was 33% more prevalent among the low pain group than the high pain group
  • COMT variant was 25% more prevalent among the moderate pain group than the high pain group
  • OPRK1 variant was 19% more prevalent among the moderate pain group than the high pain group
  • DRD2 variant was 25% more common among the high pain group than the moderate pain group

According to Tobore Onojjighofia, MD, MPH, with Proove Biosciences and a member of the American Academy of Neurology, this research could have two major benefits for pain patients. First, finding out if an individual possesses these particular gene variants could provide his or her physician with a way to evaluate his or her perception of pain. This could help physicians manage patients’ pain according to each individual’s pain tolerance. In addition to this, the identification of genes that influence pain perception could play a role in developing new, targeted pain therapies.

New brain imaging has identified a brain abnormality that may explain the overly sensitive response to stimuli in people with fibromyalgia.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans provide detailed pictures of the body’s tissues. When an MRI scan is done on the brain, the result is series of images that allow physicians to visualize the anatomy of the brain. A functional MRI (fMRI) maps the brain’s function by showing the amount of oxygen (and therefore the amount of oxygenated blood flow) in different areas of the brain. In other words, an MRI is similar to a very detailed snapshot, while an fMRI is like a flipbook showing brain activity.

A study published in Arthritis & Rheumatology used fMRI to study brain response to stimuli among people with fibromyalgia. The fMRI showed reduced activation of certain areas of the brain, namely the primary and secondary visual and auditory areas. There was also increased activation in the sensory integration regions.

These brain function abnormalities are responsible for the often painful hypersensitivity experienced by people with fibromyalgia. In fact, the researchers in this study believe these abnormalities might be part of the pathology, or key components, of fibromyalgia. This is significant because research in this area might eventually offer new neurostimulation targets for fibromyalgia treatment.

Have you heard about any other promising pain-related research?

Image via U.S. Army RDECOM via Flickr

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