A New Frontier in Pain Management?

Chronic and terminal pain cause myriad personal, interpersonal, and socioeconomic problems.  In what can only be described as sadly ironic, the most effective pain relievers currently available, all of which are opioids, have side effects that can cause problems that are as bad as the pain the drugs are administered to control.  The most troublesome and well-known side effects include altered mentation/sedation, physical dependence, respiratory depression, constipation, and androgen deficiency.  For example, cancer pain can be managed effectively with powerful opioids, but at the expense of rendering the person suffering from the pain nearly comatose.  In non-terminal, chronic pain patients, physical dependency can lead to job loss and ultimately death by respiratory failure from overdose.

Our current ability to manage chronic and terminal pain puts many sufferers in a catch 22:  treat the pain but get the side effects, avoid the side effects but live with the pain.  The ideal solution to the chronic and terminal pain conundrum would be to develop or discover methods to control pain that are as effective as opioids but without the systemic side effects.  In short, new pain relief treatments should only target that which is generating the pain.  Fortunately, a group from Flinders Medical Centre in South Australia is doing just that.  Medical News Today reports that lead researcher, Associate Professor Nick Spencer, and his team have developed a technique to identify precisely which nerve endings detect painful stimuli.  They then developed a method to inject a harmless virus into the site from which the pain originates that travels to the spinal cord and shuts off a channel to the affected nerve endings that is essential for pain perception.  As Spencer noted, “shutting off the pain is not instant, it can take days to weeks, but the big advantage is that pain can be suppressed for long periods without the classic side effects of current pain therapies.” 

The team’s current research focused on incurable pain located in the stomach and intestines, but Spencer believes the technique will have broader applications.  This would be exciting news for everyone and would be especially welcome in the claim handling community as chronic pain cases are often vexing, expensive, and resource intensive.  Any development that could eliminate or at least reduce the use of opioid pain medications in the chronic pain context would have a significant and positive effect on the management of claims involving chronic pain.  

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