Pain is a national problem. I’m not talking about the pain of a failed relationship or the terrible sensation of hitting your funny bone against something hard. I’m not talking about scraped knees, the flu or even breaking a bone. Though these are painful experiences, they are short lived. The National Institute of Health reports that 11 percent of Americans experience severe chronic pain. The pain that sticks with you for over three months, and that’s the pain I’m talking about.
Some of this pain is well understood: old injuries that never quite heal or long-term illnesses. For other people, the pain is not understood at all. Scientists can’t find anything obviously wrong, and look to genetic disposition or neural pathways that might signal pain for little or no reason. For these Americans, long-term pain relief is little more than a pipe dream. If you don’t know what is causing the pain, you can’t treat the root of the problem. Painkillers are prescribed, but they are a controlled substance and users facing chronic pain need larger and larger amounts for relief. More than one American in chronic pain has reported the shame of picking up their medications, when they can get them at all.
A number of people have turned to alternative medicine. Acupuncture, meditation and yoga are popular, and they seem to help some people. Every tool is a welcome addition to pain management, and there is a new one on the block.
A recent study has identified the region of the brain responsible for the placebo effect in pain management. This is when patients are given a placebo, a fake drug, but it helps with their pain anyway. The potential is two-fold. On one hand, those individuals who respond to a placebo can be identified and excluded from clinical trials. This will help doctors get pain medication right for those unlucky souls who need the real thing. On the other hand, better understanding how a person’s brain responds to different drugs can help doctors develop individualized plans of action for pain management. Patients can avoid taking unnecessary drugs that could have negative side effects, and instead hone in on those drugs that will work best for their particular brain.
Individualized medicine is the future of health, and the future is coming.