New Horizons in Chronic Pain Management

Worker’s compensation claims involving chronic pain are typically difficult and expensive to administer.  We know that simply putting a person on prescription painkillers doesn’t work, yet that is often the treatment claimants end up on.  In these cases, the end result is usually an employee who doesn’t return to work and ends up filing a long term disability or SSDI claim.  Either way, the result is not good for the employee, the employer, or the worker’s compensation insurance carrier.

Fortunately, the medical research community is tackling the issue head-on.  As a result, the medical community is making some exciting strides in understanding how chronic pain works and, accordingly, what treatments are likely to be the most effective.  Researchers at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine reported on one such stride.   In an animal study, researchers discovered that chronic pain looks a lot like addiction in the brain.  As one author put it, “chronic pain actually rewires the part of the brain controlling whether you feel happy or sad.”  In other words, "The study shows you can think of chronic pain as the brain getting addicted to pain," said another author. "The brain circuit that has to do with addiction has gotten involved in the pain process itself."

With this knowledge, the study combined a Parkinson’s drug and an NSAID that target the brain area chronic pain affects.  Remarkably, the combined drugs “completely eliminate chronic pain behavior when administered to rodents with chronic pain.”  Yes, you read that right:  the drugs completely eliminate chronic pain in rodents.  Unfortunately, the study involved rodents.  Still, the authors are optimist that the effect will translate to humans and have already begun designing human trials.

This development bears following.  As those of us in the worker’s compensation world know, chronic pain is debilitating and expensive.  Also, it often devolves into chronic use of opioid pain medication that has deleterious psycho-social effects and almost guarantees injured workers will develop a disability mindset.  Any new treatment that can stop the downward spiral often associated with chronic pain claims would be a remarkable development.

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