A staggering 1 in 5 Australians live with chronic pain

With new insights into the brain and its role in how we experience pain, NeuRA is researching novel ways to treat pain and help people manage it. With your help, we can help make Christmas about happiness and giving, rather than suffering through yet another day of pain.

As the most recent winner of Australian Survivor, I had to endure intense heat, hunger, lack of shelter and incredibly tough challenges. I had to draw on a great amount of mental strength to push through pain. Yet, I had an advantage that helped me outlast: my scientific understanding of the dominant role the brain plays in pain. While it definitely wasn’t easy, I’m out of the outback now and no longer dealing with the pain. But this is not the case for many Australians, who will be suffering with chronic pain this Christmas.

When chronic pain prevents a person’s ability to work, play or socialise, it starts to impact their emotional wellbeing in devastating ways. There is an established link between people living with chronic pain and mental health conditions, particularly depression and anxiety: 30-40% of people diagnosed with major depression also seek treatment for chronic pain.

The emotional toll is compounded by the fact that chronic pain is an invisible condition – often there are no scars or bruises to convey the feeling of pain. But just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not there. Watching people suffer with pain is one of the reasons that led me to pain research. As an undergraduate physiotherapy student, my best friend and housemate developed debilitating chronic low back pain. She was 22 years old, bright, bubbly and normally very athletic. Chronic pain took a lot of that from her. It was devastating to watch her struggle to get out of bed and walk to class – some days she couldn’t even do that. As a friend and someone who cared about her, I felt powerless to help.

Around the same time I was exploring topics for my Honours research project, and was presented the opportunity to study pain. This opened my eyes to the widespread impact of chronic pain. So for the last decade I have continued to explore ways that I can help make a difference in the lives of people who live with chronic pain – from working clinically as a physiotherapist and engaging in pain advocacy, to studying a PhD in pain science. I am now part of Professor James McAuley’s Centre for Pain IMPACT at NeuRA.

The power of the brain in treating chronic pain

People with pain often describe feeling dismissed, misunderstood, and not heard. It’s something they feel they just have to learn to live with.

In an ideal world, we want to find ways to treat chronic pain, so that people can improve their wellbeing. Unfortunately, the therapies currently available have modest effects, so clinically we are now placing a lot of focus on managing pain.

Historically, therapies for pain focused on the body part that was in pain. However, a lot has changed, as the field has made transformational advances in the understanding of the neurophysiology of pain. This has led researchers to develop therapies for chronic pain that instead focus on the brain and nervous system. There is potential that these treatments will have lasting effects on pain and disability that significantly impact the lives of people with chronic pain.

Using this knowledge, Professor McAuley developed two treatment programs to target how the brain and central nervous system process information to produce low back pain. In the RESOLVE trial, we compared these treatment programs to determine if back pain can be reduced through retraining the brain and central nervous system.

Mastering chronic back pain

I’m sure you know someone who suffers from back pain. You might suffer from it yourself. It is the leading cause of disability worldwide, and second only to the common cold as a reason for visiting a GP. In Australia, up to four million Australians are estimated to be suffering from low back pain. For around 40% of those people, their pain will persist and become chronic with devastating effects to both their physical and mental wellbeing. Daniel Dos Santos participated in the RESOLVE trial. He told us he started suffering from back pain in his early twenties. He is now 37.

“I was working promoting events and was a DJ. I had to carry heavy equipment. One day, I simply coughed, and experienced severe low back pain for the first time. The doctors did a scan, and told me something was wrong with my disc. Since then, I’ve always had low back pain,” Daniel says.

He pushed through the pain for years, visiting the chiropractor for temporary relief. But nothing helped long term. He tried not to let it stop him doing things he enjoyed like playing soccer and working, but the constant pain took a toll on his mental health. Daniel saw results from the first week of participating in the RESOLVE trial and his low back pain is now completely gone.

“After the trial, I never had low back pain again. And since the trial I’ve had other injuries and I’ve never felt pain with the same intensity that I used to experience. It has helped me manage pain better,” he says.

An important part of our approach to treating chronic pain is psychological, asking people to reconceptualise what pain is and why they experience it. Pain is often assumed to be an indicator of tissue damage. But modern pain science tells us that pain is protection in response to threat. This threat may take many forms. Not just what is happening in the body, but also thoughts, emotions, and context.

“I had a few difficult experiences happen in my life and the trial taught me that these kinds of things can influence my low back pain. COVID-19 was difficult, but I knew it was temporary. So I tried to account for these changes, to keep my mind positive, so it didn’t impact my pain.”

While the results of the RESOLVE trial are yet unpublished, we can share that they are very positive – we saw an average improvement in pain and disability in many participants. By arming people with knowledge about pain and the role their brain plays in pain processing, we can help people deal more effectively with their pain.

“It is really important to keep researching pain. You can save resources like time and money spent on the effects of chronic pain. And you can make society much happier. A society with less pain, I believe, is a society that is happier,” Daniel says.

Make a Christmas gift to free someone from chronic pain
As an independent, not-for-profit research institute, we rely on generous donors to fund research that can change people’s lives. Pain conditions comprise 4 of the 10 leading causes of disability in developed and developing countries. They have a significant impact on both the individual and society – reducing productivity, social participation and increasing healthcare utilisation. Low back pain alone costs the Australian healthcare system around $400 million a year.

Future treatments for pain are likely to be linked to better understanding of the brain and it role in pain. We want more treatments to reach more people sooner, and that is why we need your support.

Please consider a gift to NeuRA this Christmas, this is a time to be enjoying with loved ones, not suffering in pain. Your generous donation or ongoing commitment as a regular Discovery Partner will enable future research to free more people from chronic pain. Thank you for your support, and I wish you and your loved ones a happy, pain-free holiday season.

Yours sincerely,
Hayley Leake
Researcher at the Centre for Pain IMPACT, NeuRA

All gifts over $2 are tax deductible.

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