Nothing hurts Americans more than chronic pain. It’s our single biggest health problem, affecting the lives of 100 million adults--more than heart disease, cancer, and diabetes combined. And that figure, from a 2011 Institute of Medicine report, doesn’t even count kids in pain, veterans with devastating war injuries, or people in nursing homes.
Yet despite the fact that chronic pain is the primary reason Americans receive disability benefits, its one of the least understood afflictions. Medical schools teach doctors almost nothing about it, spending a median of nine hours on the topic over four years. The federal government puts absurdly few dollars toward research: $4 a year for every person in pain versus $2,562 for every person with HIV/AIDS. One big reason for the lack of resources is that there’s no objective way to confirm that pain exists.
The good news, finally, is that scientists from Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) in Boston have unveiled a new brain-scanning method that allows doctors to see chronic pain in exquisite detail for the first time. The technique, a merger of PET (positron emission tomography) and MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), clearly identifies that a patient is hurting, and offers a significantly better way to diagnose chronic pain. In trials, patients’ scans lit up in brain areas corresponding to where in the body they ached. Read more.