At some point in our lives, we all must have experienced pain. Do you remember the last time, this unpleasant sensation created absolute emotional havoc for you? However, why does our body need to feel pain? Aren’t we better off without it?
If we draw parallels, the mechanism causing pain is quite comparable to the pipeline during wartime correspondence. Although, health care professionals will argue that pain is far more elegant, complex and faster.
The key players here are the site of injury (the war-front), the nerve cells (the military correspondent), your spinal cord (the operator) and Mr BIG BRAIN (the high commander).
Let’s say you placed your hand on a hot stove (please don’t do it!). Your nerve cells instantaneously gather this information. In response to it, nerve cells fire millions of signals to the spinal cord. This information is then relayed to our brain to make you feel the pain and alerts you to pull your hand away in split seconds, which saves your hand from any further burning.
What a painful save, isn’t it? However, this bugger pain will stay with you for sometime to come.
When we think of pain, most of us think of acute pain, which is common and often a temporary condition. With acute pain, you typically know where and why it hurts. For instance, your scrapped knee bothers you, or you feel the pain at the site of an incision, post-surgery. The chronic pain, on the other hand, is defined as pain that lasts more than 12 weeks, sometimes even the whole lifetime. This kind of pain in many cases persists, even when the damage is completely healed or may arise without any initial injury.
The phantom of chronic pain has crumpled one in five of us, i.e., a total of 1.5 billion people around the globe. Leading a meaningful life with chronic pain is taxing, and seems to depend on the patient’s will and assistance from healthcare professionals.
Additionally, these are the patients who are most prone to fall victim to long term drug abuse, in a desperate attempt to find relief. To seek a solution for these patients, it is critical to understand what could trigger pain and addiction, and if these two are co-dependent.
A recent joint study, lead by Lisa R. LaRowe , at the Binghamton and Syracuse University, New York looked into this matter closely.
The group looked at results from over 100 studies on pain and substance abuse. They integrated these two parameters (pain and addiction due to substance abuse), as an empirical inquiry into a reciprocal mathematical model. This way, they could prove that pain and substance abuse interact in the manner of a positive feedback loop, i.e., greater the pain a person experiences greater the maintenance of addiction over time.
This might seem intuitive, however, so far researchers have only examined either how substance use affects pain or how pain affects substance use, separately. This kind of modelling for the first time stitch together two different types of research to demonstrate how pain and substance use affect one another.
It is like a never-ending vicious cycle. While substance abuse can be a potential risk factor for chronic pain, experiencing pain can motivate people to be dependent on substances harder to quit.
This study will be especially important for the cases, where the clinicians treating addictions, might help their patients managing underlying chronic pain or for those patients who self-medicate to cope with pain. Providing their patient’s alternative health strategies could assist their patients to combat substance abuse and cope with pain.
Following up with this study, it will be now up to the biochemists and neuroscientists to understand the underlining mechanism and potential proteins underneath this co-dependency, so as to develop treatments to break this loop.
The cover image is made by a science communicator friend, Ipsa Jain. She uses arts and design to start conversations about science. Ipsawonders is one woman labor of love. She wants to create beautiful things that speak science
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