Chronic pain can become a disabling and distressing condition.

Almost half the population of Northern Europe has had a major pain episode in the last year and a quarter of them suffer severe pain repeatedly.

And as developments in modern society have seen our life expectancy increase, we are likely to live longer with multiple diseases, many of which have pain as a primary symptom.

So understanding how to help cope with persistent pain is a major challenge.

Researchers at the University of Bath are looking into three different areas that might help provide new solutions to living with pain:

  • understanding how pathways in the brain that are dedicated to dampening down the pain work
  • understanding the mechanisms and the reasons why some people develop pain and disabling pain conditions
  • using communication technology and pervasive technology to deliver healthcare messages to people in their home

Pain is subjective

For a long time people thought that the critical part of pain occurs where it hurts in the body.

For instance, if a person injures their foot, that’s where the pain originates. That's partly true, but we now know that the brain is a far more critical organ. And that this makes pain subjective.

Even if two people suffer the same injury, they will experience it differently. The critical aspect is that pain is more than just a sensory experience - it's determined by what a person thinks and feels about it.

We can use thoughts and feelings to help us to find solutions for dealing with pain. There are certain pathways in the brain that are dedicated to dampening down pain.

Being able to understand how these pathways work would allow resources to be deployed in a more systematic way in developing new methods of preventing and treating pain.

Stopping the attention-grabbing power of pain

Pain is attention grabbing - it can have a disruptive effect on our ability to perform tasks.

People in pain may be more aware of cues associated with pain. And these cues may be exaggerated in those with a heightened fear of pain sensations. But attention manipulation - such as distraction - may also affect pain perception and experiences.

The research team are investigating why some sensations extend into people’s awareness and consciousness, and are difficult to switch away from. And why it's easier to distract from others.

Researchers are examining how we can reduce the attention demanding effects of pain on tasks of everyday life. They are working on new ways of establishing the effectiveness of analgesic medication by reducing the power of pain has to capture attention and dominate life.

How technology can help

Funding constraints and demographic changes make it increasingly difficult to support people with long term health conditions, including individuals in chronic pain.

So we need to bring the treatments out of the hospitals and into people’s homes. The way to do that is by using modern communication technologies, most of which many people already have in their homes.

The research team already have a prototype that can change people’s behaviour and are now working with key communication technology organisations to scale up the prototype to test whether it can change not just one or two people’s lives, but thousands.