In a number of earlier articles we have considered whether some people are more susceptible to developing chronic pain. Now, according to a paper published in the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, have established that some people are indeed genetically predisposed to develop chronic pain following trauma.
The focus of their study was a gene known as FKBP5. This gene usually helps the body to regulate stress, but its genetic mutation causes the body to over-produce our primary stress hormone, Cortisol. This in turn causes the over-sensitising of nerves and muscles, which makes them more prone to injury and then chronic pain following trauma. Earlier studies had demonstrated that other variants of this gene could increase the prospect of people suffering a variety of psychological responses to trauma, including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and depression. However, this is the first large-scale study to demonstrate that it can also cause more pain.
The research team first discovered evidence of an association between the FKBP5 gene and the development of chronic pain as a result of a study back in 2013. That study identified at least six different variants of FKBP5 and demonstrated that each of those variants could be used to predict the severity of each person’s pain following trauma. People with one variant in particular – the catchily-titled rs3800373 – were especially prone to develop chronic pain.
The more recent, larger-scale study involved over 1,600 people who had suffered injuries in car accidents. Not only did this study confirm their earlier findings, but worryingly, the researchers have now estimated that as many as one in three Americans carry the rs3800373 gene variant.
However, this discovery also opens the fascinating prospect of what might one day be achieved through a type of genetic engineering called gene editing. Put simply, researchers believe that it is highly likely that in the not too distant future, technology will allow genetic material to be added, removed or altered to reduce the risk factors created by variants of FKBP5.