The New Science of Chronic Pain

WashU A&S Magazine  / April 23, 2014 /

More than two millennia ago, when a patient complained to Hippocrates – the ancient Greek physician – about a sore back or headache, he would suggest that they chew on strips of bark from a willow tree. But if the pain continued for months, Hippocrates didn’t have much else to offer the patient aside from his sympathy. Today, not a lot has changed about how doctors treat pain; the salicylic acid found in willow bark, in fact, is the active ingredient in aspirin. And when a patient has pain that lingers long past any sign of physical injury, modern doctors are, like Hippocrates, largely stumped as to how to treat the discomfort.

At a basic research level, modern molecular biology has done little to reveal the origins of chronic pain. When a person or animal suffers a nerve injury, neuroscientists can observe the damaged nerves healing until they once again appear normal. But a healed nerve doesn’t always bring pain relief; instead, what’s termed neuropathic pain can continue for – literally – the rest of someone’s life. And other chronic pain doesn’t even begin with an injured neuron at all, making its cause even more elusive… Read more at WashU A&S Magazine.