Innovation & Tech Today|Fall 2019
To Feel Pain is Human
Pain is part of what it is to be human. In many cases, pain is normal and necessary, helping to diagnose a problem or signaling to our bodies that it’s been exposed to something potentially dangerous. But long-term pain, the kind of pain that persists beyond the time associated with natural healing, can leave a person feeling like there’s little to live for. The drug abuse epidemic that the United States is currently facing is fueled heavily by an overdependence of opioids, drugs legally prescribed by doctors to help treat this chronic pain.
Partly in response to the opioid epidemic, the management and treatment of chronic pain has become an increasingly popular medical specialty and subject of ongoing research. Pharmaceutical companies are actively researching non-addictive medications to replace opioid painkillers. However, these pharmacological treatments will likely still carry the stigma of opiates, as well as other potential side effects. Medical device and digital health companies have also developed several innovative approaches to managing chronic pain without the addictive properties or side effects of drugs.
Why Does it Hurt?
To understand how pain management technologies work, it might help to briefly see how the sensation of pain is transmitted through our bodies. We feel pain when some of the millions of sensory neurons in our body are stimulated or even damaged. The pain signal travels from these neurons to a section of the spinal cord called the dorsal horn. If the pain signal exceeds a certain threshold (by touching a hot stove versus a warm coffee mug, for example), the dorsal horn transmits the pain signal up to the brain, and the body reacts accordingly. Pain treatment works by either blocking the pain signals transmitted to the brain or by masking them with other signals.
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