The Science Behind Pain: What Do We Understand?

Pain affects more of us than you might realise. But how much do we understand about the condition?

20 Jul, 2016


Mental Health



The burden of pain

One in five Australians, including children, will suffer chronic pain in their lifetime.

The burden of pain is huge – in humanitarian, health care and financial terms. Pain is Australia’s third biggest health problem and costs the Australian economy $34 billion each year.

a younger person holding the wrist of an elderly person
What is pain?

Pain is a vital function of the nervous system that provides the body with a warning of potential or actual injury or damage.

It is not easy to quantify pain because it is experienced differently by each person. Pain is affected by psychological factors such as past experiences, beliefs about pain, fear or anxiety.

There are different types of pain. Chronic pain is defined as constant daily pain for three months or more. People with chronic pain are much more likely to experience depression, anxiety, physical deterioration, low self-esteem, isolation and relationship breakdown.

Acute pain is a normal time-limited response to trauma, surgery or another damaging experience.

Pain needs to be better understood

Australia is in many ways a world leader in pain management. But there is still a lot of room for improvement. Up to 80% of people living with chronic pain are missing out on treatment that could improve their health and quality of life.

Research into chronic pain suggests that a person’s pain threshold may be affected by the variations in their genes.

Some new possibilities for treating people with chronic pain are being developed.

Researchers at Cambridge University in the UK have identified a faulty gene that switches off pain in some people. They hope that by studying that gene they may be able to develop new treatments for those who live with pain every day.

People react differently to pain medications

For some patients a particular medicine and dose may work well. For others the same type and amount of medication may offer little relief.

Each person’s genetic profile impacts how well they respond to pain medication. This can explain why some people get minimal pain relief from the standard dose, whilst others might experience unwanted side effects.

In order to figure out how a person will respond to a particular drug, there are a wide range of factors to consider. These include age, weight, gender, and ethnicity. The person’s general health is relevant, as is what foods they eat, whether they smoke, and whether they are on other medications.

When assessing an individual’s response to a particular drug, genetic factors can be as important as any of these other factors.

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