Pain Experiments

Pain is Nature’s way of telling you something’s wrong. It’s also big business: the pain management industry will rake in $60 billion this year. Pain management is also a big problem: the total economic cost of pain management is $250 billion per year in medical costs and $350 billion in lost work for a total of $600 billion.

And then there’s the pain itself, telling you something’s wrong.

The big business of pain management consists principally of pharmaceuticals and surgery. Both have dire consequences. As a recent article in GreenMedInfo points out, the entire class of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, including over-the-counter drugs such as ibuprofen, has numerous side effects dominated by heart attack and stroke.

As the article points out, there is a wide range of alternatives including ginger, arnica, St. John’s Wart, and a wide range of anti-inflammatory nutrients. But, as the article also points out, the natural alternatives, just like pharmaceuticals and surgery, are still only papering over a symptom, which is the pain, and don’t get to what’s wrong.

Why is that?

Last week Science Daily carried an article about pain research titled “Naked Mole-Rats May Hold Clues to Pain Relief.” Based on a paper in the open source journal PLoS One (LaVinka & Park, 2012), the Science Daily title reveals much of the generally accepted views of pain science and pain management.

The naked mole-rat is native to Africa. They have no fur. They live in burrows. They are highly social. They like to cuddle. With all those little bodies snuggled up together exhaling carbon dioxide, the atmosphere in the burrow gets acidic. Acids cause pain.

Other mammals will avoid such acidic environments. Not naked mole-rats. They don’t feel the pain of their self-generated acidic environment.

As to the general case for pain relief, the lead scientist in the study told Science Daily that “Acidification is an unavoidable side-effect of injury. Studying an animal that feels no pain from an acidified environment should lead to new ways of alleviating pain in humans.”

A mole-rat doesn’t feel pain because a particular location in its brain doesn’t respond to acid signals sent to it from its nose. On the other hand, in other lab rodents this part of the brain does react. To take a great leap, the implication is that if scientists can find a way to dial down the ion channels that cause that particular area of the brain to react, then other mammals (including humans) would experience less pain—or no pain at all—from injuries. And who knows what else.

Of course, there’s another way for mammals to avoid the pain of an acidic environment: don’t snuggle up in a burrow. And so far as I know, they manage to do just that without any intervention by scientists. They do that because pain is Nature’s way of telling you something’s wrong. In this case, what’s wrong is too many bodies and too much carbon dioxide. What to do? Go where there’s fewer bodies.

But what about injuries? Wouldn’t it be good to find the mechanism for pain after an injury?

How about not getting injured in the first place? The vast majority of injuries are work related: highly influenced by unsafe conditions, fatigue resulting from shift work, and inadequate physical conditioning.

How about traditional remedies for pain? These are pain remedies that we know about because human beings have used them for a very long time, remedies that seem effective without the benefit of experiments on lab animals, remedies that are the result of human observation.

Observation is, after all, the basis of science or natural philosophy or whatever you want to call our systematic, shared understanding of how the world works: observation not experiment. Experiment is a latecomer. Most traditional and natural remedies are the result of long observation of results. Advocates have only recently jumped on the double blind, placebo controlled experiments bandwagon in order to overcome their inferiority complex and become just like “real science.”

But I digress.

To return to naked mole-rats and what we can learn about pain from them, understand that the PLoS researchers found out what was going on in mole-rat brains by anaesthetizing the creatures, looking inside, and sometimes dissecting them. I think there are valid ethical grounds for questioning such practices. The defense “It saves lives!” pops into my head, but I don’t take comfort in it. I don’t take comfort in it because I don’t think it’s the best science we can pursue to advance the alleviation of suffering. In fact, I’m not convinced it’s good science at all.

However, it does contribute to the pain management industry: more business, more jobs, a better life for everybody. Unless you’re a naked mole-rat.