Ouch! Sci­en­tists seek real way to mea­sure pain

Sun.Star Cebu - - LIVE! - AP

Sarah Tay­lor, 17, strug­gled to make doctors un­der­stand her some­times de­bil­i­tat­ing lev­els of pain, first from joint-dam­ag­ing child­hood arthri­tis and then from fi­bromyal­gia.

“It’s re­ally hard when peo­ple can’t see how much pain you’re in, be­cause they have to take your word on it and some­times, they don’t quite be­lieve you,” she said.

Now sci­en­tists are peek­ing into Sarah’s eyes to track how her pupils re­act when she’s hurt­ing and when she’s not—part of a quest to de­velop the first ob­jec­tive way to mea­sure pain.

“If we can’t mea­sure pain, we can’t fix it,” said Dr. Ju­lia Finkel, a pe­di­atric anes­the­si­ol­o­gist at Chil­dren’s Na­tional Med­i­cal Cen­ter in Wash­ing­ton, who in­vented the experimental eye-tracking de­vice.

At just about ev­ery doc­tor’s visit you’ll get your tem­per­a­ture, heart rate and blood pres­sure mea­sured. But there’s no stetho­scope for pain. Pa­tients must con­vey how bad it is us­ing that 10-point scale or emoji-style charts that show faces turn­ing from smiles to frowns.

That’s prob­lem­atic for lots of rea­sons. Doctors and nurses have to guess at ba­bies’ pain by their cries and squirms, for ex­am­ple. The aching that one per­son rates a 7 might be a 4 to some­one who’s more used to se­ri­ous pain or ge­net­i­cally more tol­er­ant. Pa­tient-to-pa­tient vari­abil­ity makes it hard to test if po­ten­tial new painkillers re­ally work.

“It’s very frus­trat­ing to be in pain and you have to wait like six weeks, two months, to see if the drug’s work­ing,” said Sarah, who uses a com­bi­na­tion of med­i­ca­tions, acupunc­ture and lots of ex­er­cise to counter her pain.

The Na­tional In­sti­tutes of Health is push­ing for de­vel­op­ment of what its direc­tor, Dr. Fran­cis Collins, has called a “pain-o-me­ter.” Spurred by the opi­oid cri­sis, the goal isn’t just to sig­nal how much pain some­one’s in. It’s also to de­ter­mine what kind it is and what drug might be the most ef­fec­tive.

One morn­ing, Sarah climbed onto an acupunc­ture ta­ble, rated that day’s pain a not-too-bad 3, and opened her eyes wide for the experimental pain test.

“There’ll be a flash of light for 10 sec­onds. All you have to do is try not to blink,” re­searcher Kevin Jack­son told Sarah as he lined up the pupil-tracking de­vice, mounted on a smart­phone.

The eyes of­fer a win­dow to pain cen­ters in the brain, said Finkel, who di­rects pain re­search at Chil­dren’s Sheikh Zayed In­sti­tute for Pe­di­atric Sur­gi­cal In­no­va­tion. How? Some pain-sens­ing nerves trans­mit “ouch” sig­nals to the brain along path­ways that also al­ter mus­cles of the pupils as they re­act to dif­fer­ent stim­uli. Finkel’s de­vice tracks pupil­lary re­ac­tions to light or to non-painful stim­u­la­tion of cer­tain nerve fibers, aim­ing to link dif­fer­ent pat­terns to dif­fer­ent in­ten­si­ties and types of pain.

Look­ing deeper than the eyes, sci­en­tists at Har­vard and Mas­sachusetts Gen­eral Hospi­tal found MRI scans re­vealed pat­terns of in­flam­ma­tion in the brain that iden­ti­fied ei­ther fi­bromyal­gia or chronic back pain. Other re­searchers have found changes in brain ac­tiv­ity—where dif­fer­ent ar­eas “light up” on scans—that sig­nal cer­tain types of pain. Still oth­ers are us­ing elec­trodes on the scalp to mea­sure pain through brain waves.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Philippines

© PressReader. All rights reserved.