Last night's Horizon programme, The Secret World of Pain, was absolutely fascinating and in parts, if you're a spoonie like me, thrilling. I recommend anyone living with pain to watch it on iplayer.
I've watched a lot of medical documentaries. I've read medical journals, and scientific theories and most are as far from ever becoming viable treatments as marmalade bandages. Last night, however, I learnt a few really, really encouraging things.
The programme introduced a family in Italy who don't feel pain. Over three generations (proving a genetic link) the family either don't experience pain, or don't feel certain types of pain. In the UK, there was a woman who simply felt no pain at all. By studying these incredibly rare people, scientists had made a genuinely extraordinary discovery. Whilst pain is a ridiculously complicated process involving hundreds of neurons and genes, only one gene actually controls how we feel pain. Scientists have isolated this gene - the SCN9A gene - and found it mutated in all of people they were studying. In every other way they were normal, unaffected. This leads scientists to suggest that if a drug could be developed that blocked the SCN9A gene, it would be the perfect painkiller with no side effects.
Although the whole programme was fascinating, the other research that I found extraordinary was being done by the Pain Relief Foundation in Liverpool. Using thousands of brain images, scientists seem to have discovered that constant, chronic, pain does actually cause damage in the brain. The primary motor cortex comes under enormous pressure from the endless onslaught of pain messages until parts stop working or even begin to control the wrong pain response. By applying magnetic pulses to the damaged part of the brain, human trials are already underway to see if these damaged pathways can be restored. From the demonstration given last night, it seems rather likely that they can and that results are almost instant and quite significant. All from sitting with a cap full of sensors on for a few minutes!
Now, these seem to be pretty viable treatments. Certainly, the fact that the Trans Cranial Magnetic Treatment just outlined, is at the human trial stage, implies that if successful, it could be available within a few years, rather than decades. Developing a specific drug to block a gene such as SCN9A is still incredibly specialised, but isolating the gene at all is an enormous step forward. Those of us who live our lives in terrible pain, day in and day out, suddenly may have a glimmer or two of hope after all.
Do watch the programme, there are other parts that spoonies definitely need to see - one treatment is so simple, we could all do it through periods of acute pain. It simply relies on the fact that the brain can only respond to so many stimuli at once. A burn victim suffering unthinkable pain as his dressings were changed was fitted with - a virtual reality computer game!! Yep, the actions of firing snowballs at penguins and being unable to see or become anxious about anything being done to him in the room, was enough to take his pain score from almost unbearable to practically non-existent.
So, I'm off to GAME to get a virtual reality, coalition-busting environment, where I get to throw custard pies at George Osborne and David Cameron. I'll tell you how it goes....