You may have seen the story in the national press about the discovery of a Scottish woman who lives a virtually pain-free life.
Seventy-one-year-old Jo Cameron has experienced childbirth, multiple surgeries and minor injuries with hardly any experience of pain or need for pain relief. When she needed a hip operation, the Consultant Anaesthetist noticed her pain insensitivity and it was discovered that she had two rare gene variants.
Both genes are involved in regulating levels of a chemical with similar effects to cannabis. This chemical is made naturally in the body and plays important roles in memory, fear and pain perception. Cameron has twice as much of the chemical as the average person and she also has accelerated wound healing and very little anxiety.
But imagine a life without pain. No throbbing headaches. No stinging sunburns. No aching joints. If you think that sounds great, think again.
Pain protects us. When you touch a hot stove, you recoil in pain. That sensation helps you avoid getting a burn that could be dangerous — even deadly. The throbbing of a broken foot tells you to stay off it until it heals, so you don't do more damage. Without those signals, we'd all be in big trouble.
Some pain is straightforward. Burn your skin, pull a muscle or break a bone, and you feel discomfort. This short-term effect is called acute pain. Other pain can last months or years. This is called chronic pain and its cause often remains a mystery, although it is believed that sometimes the nervous system can get it wrong.
The biology of pain is complex and scientists are still working out the different causes of pain, along with the best treatment for each type.
Pain is a kind of perception, similar to smelling, tasting and hearing. However, those senses tell you what's happening in the world around you. Pain tells you what's happening inside your own body.
When you suffer an injury, your nervous system is in charge of delivering the news. Imagine that you twist your ankle. Nerve cells in your ankle pick up the signal that something's wrong. A network of nerve cells relays this message to the spinal cord and, from there, it shoots up to the brain. The brain then translates the message and registers the feeling – Ow!
That's the simple explanation, at least. There are still a lot of questions about how those messages travel and how the brain turns them into a feeling.
Many other chronic pain disorders, however, have no easy explanation. Take migraines. These intense headaches aren't caused by inflammation or injury. They aren't linked to nerve damage, either.
Scientists now believe that chronic pain occurs when the nervous system itself gets broken.
Brain cells are surprisingly flexible. When you make new memories or learn something new, your brain cells actually alter shape. When you learn a maths equation, the structure of your brain is literally changing.
It turns out that the same systems involved in learning and memory also are involved in sensing pain. In other words, pain changes nerve cells. Those changes happen both in the brain and in the spinal cord. And they may last even after the initial trigger for pain vanishes.
Scientists are trying to figure out whether they can reverse those changes. If they could wipe out the pain memory stamped onto the cells, maybe they could cure chronic pain. To do so, they've tested some drugs, which interfere with molecules that transmit messages in the brain. What scientists have not yet established, is what else might happen if you wipe out the pain memory.
For more information on pain management or to book an appointment in Bridgnorth or Shrewsbury, please call 01746 761050.