The word ‘pain’ is a versatile one. It can describe a physical or emotional sensation, or even an annoying person. For example: “That guy is such a pain!” Even used clinically it can be hard to pin down. But that hasn’t stopped scientists from trying. To that end, a new study delves into the concept of a ‘pain fingerprint’.
Most of you will have had the misfortune to present to a doctor or hospital with an injury or ailment. As part of the diagnostic process, you’ve probably been asked to rate your pain on a scale of 1 to 10. This may provide the specialist with some information, but it won’t likely be of great use.
One of the drawbacks of such a scale is that, realistically, it is different for everyone. If you present with a broken finger but haven’t had another major injury you might rate your pain a ‘10’. And for you it will probably a correct rating, because it might be the worst pain you’ve experienced.
However, another patient presenting with a broken finger may have had a past accident resulting in a compound leg fracture. That person will probably rate their finger pain lower than ‘10’, assuming the leg fracture pain rating was ‘10’.
And yet from both patients’ perspectives, ‘10’ is a perfectly truthful and accurate rating.
Introducing the pain fingerprint
The pain rating scale is subjective. In an attempt to overcome this, researchers from the University of Essex (UoE) used brain scans to assess gamma oscillations. These are linked to pain perception, which could form the basis for a pain fingerprint.
The UoE researchers, enlisting 70 volunteers, ran a number of trials in which individuals were subjected to stimuli. The volunteers received both tactile (i.e. touch without pain) and painful stimuli.
While subjected to those stimuli, the volunteers wore an electrode cap to produce electroencephalogram (EEG) data. This allowed analysis of gamma responses. Some participants returned after two weeks and repeated the experience.
The researchers found that some produced gamma responses when subjected to pain while others did not. And, among those who did produce responses, there was great variability in response levels.
However, the returning patients produced near identical gamma oscillations in both their first and second sessions.
So what does this tell us?
The results suggest that each person perceives and feels pain differently, but the pain perception remains the same for an individual over time. This in turn promotes the concept of a pain fingerprint, unique to each individual.
In time that concept could be developed further to create tailored pain management plans. It sounds like a great idea, and almost science fictional. Unfortunately, for now it is just that, because far more research will be required.
For instance, participants were measured only two weeks apart. Would the results be the same two months, or two years apart? If not, the idea of a pain fingerprint may not hold. Only further research will confirm this one way or the other.
In the meantime, you will have to inform your medical specialist of your pain level the traditional way. It provides them with at least some guidance, even if the process is a bit of a pain.
Have you been asked about your pain level by a medical specialist? Do you think your answer assisted them? Let us know via the comments section below.
Health disclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not advice. For health advice, consult your medical practitioner.