I admit it: I’m a baby when it comes to the smallest bruises. But I do feel guilty about fussing over papercuts when I hear about people with tactile allodynia, a chronic pain condition where the slightest touch can cause searing pain.
Allodynia, meaning “other pain,” refers to pain from things that shouldn’t normally hurt. For people with tactile allodynia, or touch-evoked pain, simple needs like a hug or a soothing breeze can turn into nightmares. Everyday activities such as brushing their hair or putting on a shirt can hurt. They can certainly kiss their NFL dreams goodbye.
Treating such chronic pain is tricky, because the root cause is not a wound that can be patched up with a Band-Aid. The culprit is often a damaged nerve or nerve circuit, leading to a mix-up of pain and touch signals, and fooling the brain into misreading touch as being painful.
Painkillers such as morphine haven’t been very effective at quelling this particular type of pain so far. That’s because they may have been targeting the wrong nerve cells all along, researchers here reveal.
Their recent article in the journal Neuron describing the finding points out that the nerve cells, or neurons, that control this type of pain are different from the usual pain neurons that morphine-based drugs target.
In my Inside Stanford Medicine story, I describe how the finding can help drug companies develop the right drugs to treat this type of chronic pain. Senior author of the Neuron article, assistant professor of anesthesiology and of molecular and cellular physiology Gregory Scherrer, PhD, and colleagues, zero in on specific binding sites on these neurons that drugs can target in order to cut off their signal and numb the pain.
Because the underlying nerves spread through the skin, topical creams or skin patches carrying the right drug would work quite well to reduce the pain, the authors say.
In the story, Scherrer also explains why drug companies gave up on such drugs before, and how his research could now help these companies successfully develop drugs to help patients with this type of pain.