January 10, 2019
The current method used by medical professionals to gauge pain is to ask a patient to rank it from 1 to 10, with 1 being very little pain and 10 being excruciating. Or, patients point to an emoji-style chart of faces turning from smiles to frowns, gradually, to show pain.
Obviously, these industry standards are by no means perfect and can be quite problematic in patients — like babies — unable to specifically communicate their pain. Not to mention the subjectivity of it all.
The Associated Press reports that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is pushing for development of what its director, Dr. Francis Collins, has called a “pain-o-meter.” The call for a more official method of pain measurement make sense because, at just about every doctor’s visit you’ll get your temperature, heart rate and blood pressure measured. Yet, there’s no stethoscope for pain.
Spurred by the opioid crisis, the goal of the pain-o-meter isn’t just to signal how much pain a patient is feeling. Ideally, it could determine the type of pain as well as an effective treatment. “We’re not creating a lie detector for pain,” stressed David Thomas of NIH’s National Institute on Drug Abuse, who oversees the research, in a statement to the AP. “We do not want to lose the patient voice.”
The NIH has been funding research studies of brain scans, pupil reactions and other possible markers of pain in hopes of finally “seeing” the ouch so they can better treat it, the AP notes.
About 25 million people in the United States experience pain on a daily basis, NIH estimates.
A device that looks into patients' eyes is one of the top approaches in early-stage studies, ABC News reports. Researchers believe that patterns of pupil reactions could signal pain, and what drug might help. Other researchers are testing if brain scans or brain wave measurement could work.
The ultimate goal of the NIH research is to uncover biological markers that explain why some people recover from acute pain while others develop hard-to-treat chronic pain.