When people visit a doctor, they may have temperature, heart rate and blood pressure measured. But there’s no stethoscope for pain.
Is it stabbing or burning?
Patients must convey how bad it is using that 10-point scale or emoji-style charts that show faces turning from smiles to frowns.
The aching that one person rates a seven, might be a four 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.
Patients’ estimates on the 10-point scale vary. It is not a precise way of getting a carefully calibrated answer.
Lauran Neergaard wrote an Associated Press story that reports that doctors and scientists are working to determine how to measure pain.
Years ago in a movie, a doctor explained to his interns, “Pain is our friend. That’s how we learn the location of the problem.”
Neergaard wrote about Sarah Taylor, 17, who has struggled to make doctors understand her sometime debilitating levels of pain, first from joint-damaging childhood arthritis and then from fibromyalgia.
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,” Dr. Julia Finkel, a pediatric anesthesiologist at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, who invented the experimental eye-tracking device, said.
Doctors and nurses have to guess at babies’ pain by their cries and squirms.
The AP story said self-ratings don’t determine what kind of pain someone has — one reason for trial-and-error treatment. Are opioids necessary? Or is the pain, like Sarah’s, better suited to nerve-targeting medicines?
“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,” Sarah, who uses a combination of medications, acupuncture and lots of exercise to counter her pain, said.
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.
Around the country, National Institutes of Health (NIH) is funding scientists who have begun studies of brain scans, pupil reactions and other possible markers of pain in hopes of finally “seeing” the ouch so they can better treat it.
It’s early-stage research and it’s not clear how soon any of the attempts might pan out.
We all experience pain in our lifetimes. These studies can lead to new ways of battling pain for humans and other creatures.
It is an important project and we hope government entities, private firms and individuals will provide plentiful support for these programs.