By: Laurie Edwards for Medtech1
Researchers at Columbia University have discovered a molecular switch that may “turn off” chronic pain, potentially giving the 48 million sufferers in this country the relief they’ve been seeking.
Unlike acute pain, which diminishes as the body recovers, chronic pain is defined as pain that lasts at least six months after the body has healed. Until now, the options for patients included medications like painkillers, anticonvulsants, and antidepressants, all options that do not always work and can pose serious side effects..
|While important, medication is just one of the many ways patients can manage chronic pain. Here are some other pain-relieving strategies:|
Therapeutic stretching and strengthening activities can help minimize pain. Low-impact activity like walking, swimming and biking are also good ways to reduce pain, but overexerting yourself or not getting enough exercise can be harmful, so always consult with your physician to ensure you are getting the right amount of exercise.
Occupational therapy can help you learn to pace yourself and perform everyday tasks in different ways that won’t exacerbate your pain.
Behavioral and relaxation techniques like yoga and meditation can help you relax and diminish stress levels that can worsen pain.
Simple lifestyle changes like getting regular and adequate sleep each night and avoiding naps can also help. Larger changes like quitting smoking may also reduce pain, since the nicotine in cigarettes can decrease the effectiveness of certain pain relievers.
But Columbia University researchers have approached treating chronic pain in a new way: they have discovered a protein in nerve cells called protein kinase G or PKG, that acts as a switch for chronic pain and is responsible for the long term activity of pain sensors even after injury and inflammation have subsided.
“We’re very optimistic that this discovery and our continued research will ultimately lead to a novel approach for the millions suffering from chronic pain,” Dr. Richard Ambron of Columbia University’s Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology.
The research done by Dr. Ambron and his colleague Dr. Ying-Ju Sung was published in the August issue of Neuroscience. Now that researchers have identified this molecular switch, they have applied for a patent to start developing medications that can turn it off permanently.
Current medications focus on the second-order neurons in the spinal cord that send pain messages to the brain. These medications must cross the blood-brain barrier, which can decrease efficacy. In contrast, the drugs that affect PKG would work in the periphery of the body and not the brain, a location much further down the pain-signal pathway.
Chronic pain is both widespread and hard to manage. The 2004 Americans Living With Pain Survey found that 72 percent of participants have lived with chronic pain for more than three years; a third of those people have lived with it for more than a decade.
Almost half of the surveys responders said they didn’t consult a physician for several months, despite the many ways that pain interrupted their lives. And indeed, pain impacts nearly all facets of life: in addition to the discomfort it poses, chronic pain can also limit daily activities and productivity and can impact self-esteem and satisfaction.
In addition to certain lifestyle changes and exercise regimens physicians may prescribe, medication is an important part of managing chronic pain. The potential of drugs that target PKG is great, and they represent a huge breakthrough. Despite the $50 billion dollar painkiller market, side effects like drowsiness and dependency of certain classes of existing drugs leave chronic pain patients with few long-term remedies.
The realization that we can approach chronic pain in a new way, one that just might result in more effective treatment, is encouraging news for the millions of people who suffer every day.