Pain is officially defined by the International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP) as “an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage or described in terms of such damage.” Acute pain is associated with sudden injury, trauma or inflammation and generally lasts less than six months. Despite this relatively short timeframe, it can cause significant emotional distress and disruption to daily life for patients.
Unfortunately, the number of those suffering from pain surpass those with diabetes, heart disease and cancer combined. It is also the most common reason to see a doctor or go to the hospital, costing in excess of $500 billion annually in care and lost productivity. Pain is a serious human health issue which has recently gotten more attention and funding for research with the goal of finding alternative treatments with fewer side-effects or potential for addiction.
The process of feeling pain ispart of a complex warning system which involves sensory, cognitive and emotional responses. Over the last several decades, research has shown that the signals carrying pain messages to the brain don’t just travel in a straight line. In 1965, Doctors Melzack and Wall introduced the Gate Control Theory which showed how pain is modified in the spinal cord and along the pain pathway. This discovery led to more research which further documented the ability of the human body to affect the severity of pain as it is happening. At the first sign of injury or tissue damage, nerve endings called nociceptors immediately go into action, sending the signal to the spinal cord. It is here where the pain is either suppressed or the signal continues to the Thalamus. An easy example of this in practice is when someone bangs their head and then massages the spot. The action of massaging helps to override or slow down the initial signal and the sharp pain then dissipates.
It is not just the chemical reaction to pain stimulus that determines how open or closed the “gate” may be. In fact, this is where emotion and thought processes play a significant role. If a patient is having heartburn, but worries that it is a more serious problem, the discomfort becomes more pronounced and then other symptoms of anxiety also add to the mix and make the situation worse. However, positive thoughts and calm actions like deep breathing can close pain gates, effectively decreasing the pain. A well-known example of this is the success of the Lamaze method for childbirth, which teaches breathing techniques along with positive thoughts as a distraction and is quite successful at reducing the pain of contractions.
With new technology and a better understanding of how pain signals are sent and received, more accuracy in diagnosis is now possible. The first step is a physical examination, including questions regarding the severity of symptoms, after which further testing with imaging or nerve and sensory studies can be added to shed light on the root cause.
An exciting breakthrough was announced earlier this year by professor Alexander Niculescu, MD, PhD at the University of Indiana (February 2019). Dr. Niculescu has developed a blood test prototype pinpointing a biomarker allowing them to objectively measure an individual’s severity of pain for the first time. This biomarker is extremely significant because it can also match the patient with treatment strategies and medication tailored to them with the goal of reducing the dependence on opioid drugs.
The focus on finding treatment options other than traditional prescription medications has opened the mindset of researchers and physicians to alternative treatments for pain that can be just as effective, with significantly less side-effects. These include meditation, acupuncture, biofeedback, chiropractic care, hypnosis, cognitive behavior, electrical stimulation and the use of cannabinoid (CBD) as an analgesic.
Recent studies, and more that are underway, have shown these alternative treatment plans to be effective in relieving pain for patients. As more research concludes and findings are published, Canbiola will keep client informed.
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