Scientists discover a new way to treat chronic pain

In what could be a breakthrough moment for those living with chronic pain, reachers from the University of Oxford have a new understanding of the mechanisms that cause chronic pain

In a study published in BMJ Journals, estimated that chronic pain affects between one-third and a half of the UK population, approximately just under 28 million adults – and that figure is likely to rise in line with the ageing population.

But now, a new study from the University of Oxford has made a discovery that could lead to the development of new treatments for chronic pain.

The researchers started from the understanding that repeated stimulation – for example, a sharp pin prick – can lead to a heightened sensitivity to pain. This is a process called ‘pain wind-up’, and it contributes to clinical pain disorders.

From here, the researchers compared genetic variation in samples from more than 1,000 participants in Colombia, and used these to see whether there were any genetic variants more common in people who experienced greater ‘pain wind-up’. What they found was a significant difference in the variants of one specific gene, NCX3.

The next phase was a series of experiments in mice, which sought to understand how this gene regulates ‘pain wind-up’, and whether it could be a treatment target.

“This is the first time that we have been able to study pain in humans and then to directly demonstrate the mechanism behind it in mice, which provides us with a really broad understanding of the factors involved and how we can begin developing new treatments for it,” says Professor Bennett, professor of neurology and neurobiology of the Nuffield Department of Clinical Neuroscience.

“Chronic pain is a global problem, and can be immensely debilitating. We carried out the study in Colombia because of the mixed ancestry of the population there, including Native Indian, African and European populations, which gave us a broad range of genetic diversity to look at. This makes these findings so exciting because of their potential international applications.

“The findings imply that any drugs which can increase activity of NCX3 would be predicted to reduce pain sensitisation in humans.’

Of course, chronic pain affects more than just our physical health, and a study published in the Symposium on Pain Medicine uncovered a bidirectional relationship between chronic pain and mental health disorders. Chronic pain can trigger anxiety, depression, and stress. Furthermore, many can feel isolated by their pain, either because they are not able to be as active as they once were, or because of the social barriers that prevent others from empathising with their experiences.

While pain medication and holistic care currently go some way to support those with chronic pain, this discovery will bring hope to many looking for more answers.

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