Basic Research Is Making Inroads, but Chronic Pain Remains a Vast Problem

Effectively treating chronic pain will require a broad culture shift in medical care and research, a panel of experts said at a AAAS event.

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An expert panel discussed chronic pain, at an event held at AAAS headquarters in Washington, D.C. | The Dana Foundation

Chronic pain affects more than 100 million people in the United States, but the median number of hours devoted to formal education on pain in U.S. medical schools is just nine, according to David Thomas, deputy director of the Division of Clinical Neuroscience and Behavioral Research at the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Thomas and two co-panelists spoke about the need for a deep cultural shift in how chronic pain is treated and understood, at "Tangled up in Blue: The Complexity of Chronic Pain," the first event of 2015 in the "Neuroscience and Society" series organized by AAAS in partnership with the Dana Foundation. The 18 March event also included Edward Bilsky, professor of pharmacology at the College of Osteopathic Medicine and vice president for research and scholarship at the University of New England; David Borsook, professor of anesthesia with the P.A.I.N. Research Group at Boston Children's Hospital; and discussant Cindy Steinberg, national director of policy and advocacy at the U.S. Pain Foundation and chair of the Policy Council Massachusetts Pain Initiative.

The speakers summarized a variety of advances in basic research and early clinical trials showing that chronic pain is real and can have long-lasting effects on the nervous system. However, these discoveries have not yet led to widespread benefits for patients with chronic pain, who are also at higher risk for depression, anxiety, opioid addiction, and suicide. "There's a disconnect between where neuroscience is today and what is happening, or not happening, in the clinic," said Borsook.