According to a recent Institute of Medicine study, 100 million people in the U.S. suffer from chronic pain: that's about one out of every three people. But how do researchers study this subjective condition in an objective way?
One of the big problems in medicine is the need to rely on participants' self-reports of their experiences. For example, in studying pain, participants may be asked to rank their level of pain on a scale -- and as you might guess, the perception of pain can vary widely between individuals, depending on a person's personal history, heartiness, age, and other factors. What's more, studies have found that there is considerable cultural bias in the diagnosis and treatment of pain, with some patients perceived as fabricating their pain.
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But now, researchers say they've come up with an objective way of measuring people's pain levels: by looking into the brain itself to rate pain physiologically.
"We rely on patient self-reporting for pain, and that remains the gold standard," said study author Sean Mackey, M.D., Ph.D. "That's what I, as a physician, rely on when I take care of a patient with chronic pain. But there are a large number of patients, particularly among the very young and the very old, who can't communicate their pain levels. Wouldn't it be great if we had a technique that could measure pain physiologically?" After a conference in 2009 on the neuroimaging of pain, Mackey and colleagues were compelled to try to design a "painometer" to measure pain objectively. And this is just what they did.