Almost every person in America has experienced pain at one point or another, and many of those who have experienced any type of moderate to severe pain, have visited a doctor about said pain, at which point they are shown a little scale, marked one to ten, often with little corresponding faces below each number to represent levels of pain, and are told to point out on the scale how much pain they are in. If you have been in this situation before, it is likely you, just like many others, have thought to yourself “Is this really a good way to measure how much pain I’m in? Isn’t pain subjective?”, and to a point you would be correct. Studies,
such as one done by the American College of Rheumatology (Hawker, Mian, Kendzerska, French, 2011) have shown that such numbered pain tests, such as the Numeric Rating Scale, NRS-11 (in reference to the 11 degrees of pain, 0-10, that appear on the scale), or the Wong-Baker Faces rating scale, are actually fairly reliable in measuring pain intensity. This being said, they have a few major flaws, the biggest of which being that the scales are only good for measuring the pain intensity one feels, and have no ability to detect how a person’s mental state, or any other number of mitigating factors, could be affecting the amount of pain that person is in.
This raises the question, “Well how can we fully measure pain?”. This problem, for many years, has had no real solution, partially because many studies into the matter have managed to make little or no overall progress, or have just reaffirmed facts we already know without providing new conclusions. Thankfully however, in the past few years leaps and bounds have been made into studying how to accurately measure pain, and many scientists have even found ways to measure pain on a less subjective and more neurological level.
So What Progress Have We Made?
Using advances in modern technology, scientists are now closer than ever to perfecting a system of pain measurement that can be accurate on all fronts, such as in a study funded by the National Institute of Drug Abuse, the National Institute of Mental Health, and the National science foundation, (Wager, Atlas, Lindquist, Roy, Woo, Kross, 2013). In this study scientists tested a new, seemingly obvious but deceptively difficult method of measuring pain. This process involves detecting how much pain a person is in by literally taking a brain scan of them. For the purposes of this study the test subjects were subjected to certain amounts of heat, allowing the scientists to analyze the patient’s brain activity, and therefore comprehend the levels of pain the patients were feeling from the heat. These brain scans measure pain with much greater accuracy than would ever be possible with a simple “Tell me how much pain you are in on a scale of 1-10.” test and are able to account for a person’s mental state when measuring pain to a level that was never possible with previous methods.
Now, this is no perfect system, and will require more tests and research before it can provide fully accurate results all of the time, but with tests like these, scientists studying pain measurement may finally be able to create a system that measures pain on a truly person to person basis, and may even be able to use this brain scanning technique for a variety of other purposes, such as studying other kinds of subjective feelings people have. In fact, this method has already proven how it can be used for just this purpose, as shown by another, earlier study done by some of the same team members, (Kross, Berman, Mischel, Smith, Wager, 2011) in which levels of emotional pain were measured in test subjects who had recently suffered from heartbreak, allowing scientists to further look at the relationships of different types of pain, such as how the emotional pain of splitting from a partner could compare to the physical pain one experiences due to a painful medical condition. This could lead to this “brain scanning for pain” system being useful not just for doctors measuring physical pain, but also for professionals such as psychologists and psychiatrists, who could use the system to better understand the kind of internal pain a patient is experiencing due to a variety of emotional and mental losses, disorders, and conditions.
Will these scans become common soon?
Not necessarily, this technology has yet to be perfected, but the important part is that all the answers are finally within our grasp. In fact, what this shows is that the capacity of man to both study and measure pain, despite having no major advances and not being well researched for many years, is finally increasing. Maybe sometime in the new future, if you become sick or begin to experience some sort of emotional pain, when you go to see a practitioner you will no longer be greeted with a 1-10 scale and be told to point out how intense your pain is, but instead will be hooked up to a machine that conveys exactly what kinds of pain you are in, allowing for quicker, more accurate, and more effective treatment than ever before.
With this kind of knowledge within our grasp, one can only imagine just how much treatment methods will improve, and what other kinds of advances could accompany being able to better detect pain, such as new ways to treat pain in those who must live with intense pain, such as victims of cancer and pancreatitis. In the end, all it comes down to is that pain is something that affects us all, so making advances like these does not just help a small fraction of population, but instead benefits humanity as a whole and helps us to carve out a brighter future for the entire human race.