A measurement for chronic pain is a scientific holy grail – and we’re getting closer | Abdul-Ghaaliq Lalkhen

People who have chronic pain without a visible injury are often not believed, but new research can help visualise that pain

Most people, including doctors, do not appreciate that the organ that produces pain is the brain. A broken bone, damaged tissue or a bleeding wound is often the focus, but the experience of pain is the sum total of more than just the physical injury – it is the result of information sent from our nerves being filtered through an individual’s unique psychological makeup, genetics, gender, beliefs, expectations, motivations and emotional context. Pain is therefore an individual experience, and often confounds and frightens us, as well as those we love and who love us.

Acute pain is a life-preserving sensory and emotional experience, like hunger or thirst, and is produced by the brain to alert us to an actual or potential threat to our survival from damage to our bodies. It is a complex biological alarm system and, like all systems, may malfunction. When it becomes dysfunctional, the individual experiences pain without identifiable damage. The disease state that results is called chronic pain. At the moment, it cannot be cured – in other words, there is no bone that can be mended or wound that can be stitched that will cause the alarm to be switched off.

Dr Abdul-Ghaaliq Lalkhen specialises in pain medicine and is a visiting professor at Manchester Metropolitan University. He is the author of Pain: The Science of the Feeling Brain

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