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New Discoveries In Chronic Pain Research

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Warning: This segment contains a story about sexual violence.

More than 100 million Americans experience chronic pain. And although that’s more than the number of Americans who suffer from heart disease, cancer, or diabetes combined, chronic pain often goes untreated. Chronic pain is distinguished from acute pain, in that it lasts for over three to six months. A research team at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Medicine has recently completed a new study with patients suffering from chronic pain after surviving traumatic events like sexual assault or car accidents.

Samuel McLean, professor of anesthesiology and emergency medicine at UNC School of Medicine and the director of the TRYUMPH research program, joined Host Frank Stasio on the program to discuss these new discoveries in chronic pain research. McLean explained that until now, the common misconception about pain is that it’s connected to tissue injury.

“Most people think that unless something’s broken, a torn muscle, a slipped disc, that you’re not going to have persistent pain. You have to have some sort of damage that you can see,” Dr. McLean explains. “We now know that that’s really not the case. Chronic pain is caused by changes in the brain and the spinal cord and the nerves that go through tissues. Such that you can’t tell from looking at someone how much pain they’re in. Unfortunately because you can’t tell by looking, and people assume that you should be able to, patients with chronic pain face a lot of stigma.”

Horty Jacobs, a retired teacher and photographer, also joined the program to share her experience managing chronic pain for more than six decades. Jacobs has faced firsthand, the kind of stigmatization, and confusion from doctors. She shared the story of one of her first times going to a doctor to find ways to solve her chronic pain.

“My first and nastiest experience was when I had been on something for pain because I couldn’t move my neck and my head. They put me on a medication, and it was no longer effective. So I kept taking more of it, thinking if I take more it will help. Then I realized that’s not a good thing to do,” shared Horty Jacobs. “So I went to a doctor and he listened to my story and he said ‘You’re crazy. You’re never going to get well. You belong in an institution.’”

Dr. McLean addressed the lack of medical knowledge about chronic pain, as well as pain that occurs after certain traumatic events. Chronic pain after sexual assault is a very common outcome; however, it has gone severely understudied. Dr. McLean and his research team helped conduct one of the first studies of pain after sexual assault.

“We conducted a study in North Carolina. We enrolled women at the time they came in for emergency care within the first 24 hours after assault, and we interviewed them over time,” Dr. McLean stated. “We found that more than half of women were in severe pain. More than half of women had three more body areas of pain. And only 14 percent of them received any pain medication, because it’s just not something we think of as pain happening after sexual assault.”

There are few studies on possible treatments other than medicine for chronic pain. Jacobs told Host Frank Stasio that she had had very poor experiences with medication.

“At one point I was on 14 pills. I was on four antidepressants. I kept saying, ‘I’m not depressed, I’m just in pain,’” Jacobs remarked. “I was on four different pain killers and the rest were to take care of the side effects.”

Dr. McLean will continue to research chronic pain, and will soon embark on a study about African-Americans and chronic pain. But until there’s more research and treatment, people like Horty Jacobs are finding ways to fight through the pain.

“This is how I feel. And I’ve come to accept the fact that I need to find ways to live my life in spite of the pain," says Jacobs. "If I’m going to have it I may as well be doing something constructive when I’m having it, because it doesn’t go away if I do nothing.”

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Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.