Libby Parfitt examines a groundbreaking discovery that explains why short-term pain can become chronic, opening the door to possible new treatment options in the future.
What with the Omicron variant, countries failing to agree climate targets and never-ending fishing rows, we all need some good news right now, and I hope that this development is just that: researchers in California have finally identified the mechanism within the body that makes short-term pain turn into chronic pain.
What’s the difference between acute and chronic pain?
Short-term, acute pain is caused by an injury or surgery, whilst chronic pain is defined as persistent pain lasting more than 3 months, including conditions like Complex Regional Pain Syndrome, Fibromyalgia and Neuropathic Pain. Until now, doctors had no real understanding of exactly what happened within the body to make pain move from acute to chronic; given that it’s estimated more than 1.5 billion people worldwide struggle with long-term pain and that it’s generally very hard to treat, the question of how, when and where acute becomes chronic is one that desperately needed answering.
What exactly has been discovered?
This new research from the University of California, Irvine has discovered that there are mechanisms on a molecular level present in the spinal cord that control the transition of pain from acute to chronic. Specifically, they found that disabling a particular enzyme in the spinal cord during a 72-hour window following a tissue injury stopped the development of chronic pain in male and female mice. To find out more about the details of the study, click here.
What does this mean for pain sufferers?
This news could potentially be game-changing for chronic pain sufferers. By identifying how, when and where in the body pain shifts from short to long-term, these researchers have hypothetically opened the door to a whole new range of treatments for chronic pain. Those new treatments could potentially run the gamut from medicines that stop chronic pain developing, to ones which target any role this molecular mechanism may have in perpetuating long-term pain. There are currently very few treatment options for chronic pain conditions, and the ones there are often come with major downsides, like the well-known danger of addiction and the decreasing efficacy of opioid painkillers, or the surgical risks of spinal cord stimulators. Any new treatment modality is something we desperately need and should be celebrated.
There’s obviously a lot more research to be done here and it will certainly be a significant amount of time before pain sufferers get to try any new treatment options, but this is ground-breaking news that has the potential to be paradigm-shifting for those who live with the devastating impact of chronic pain. By identifying on a molecular level the mechanisms that shift pain from short to long-term researchers are gaining an unprecedented understanding of where, how and when chronic pain originates in the body, and this can only be good news for sufferers, even if we have to wait for it to crystallise into new treatments. Here’s hoping that this really is the beginning of the elimination of chronic pain altogether.