Dec 02 2021 Posted: 08:00 GMT

Digital pain management programmes could tackle shortage of pain psychologists

As published in the Irish Times, Thu, Dec 2, 2021, 06:01

By Louise Ní Chríodáin

Routine pain treatments could soon include virtual reality, and harnessing the body’s ability to generate its own pain relief.

Finding the treatments of the future, is one driving force behind NUI Galway’s Centre for Pain Research. Founded in 2007 by professor of pharmacology and therapeutics, David Finn, and professor of clinical psychology, Brian McGuire, it brings together academics and researchers from across the health sciences.

Prof Finn’s background is in biotechnology and neuroscience, while Dr Michelle Roche, a member of the centre since its inception and co-director since 2020, has a background in physiology and neuropharmacology. There are also collaborations with clinical colleagues, in particular those at University Hospital Galway’s Pain Clinic, where Prof McGuire works as a psychologist.

Sensors for a virtual reality device are attached to the stump, and the patient sees an image of their missing limb, their virtual arm or leg, on the screen

Much of their work is driven by the search to understand and alleviate pain. “About 20 per cent of the population suffers from chronic pain,” says Prof Finn. “But if you asked that cohort how they’re doing on their medications, about 70 per cent say that it is inadequate some of the time, and about 40 per cent say it’s inadequate all of the time. So there’s this massive unmet clinical need, first of all for better drugs that are more effective against pain, but also because a lot of existing drugs have very substantial side effects.

“Like addiction – we can see the problems of the opioid crisis in the US. Even non-addictive painkillers, such as non-steroidal anti inflammatory drugs like aspirin and ibuprofen, are very hard on people when taken over a long period of time, because they cause stomach ulcers and have other effects.”

In addition to new therapies, novel ways of delivering drugs are being investigated. Delivery systems that allow the administration of pharmacological treatments directly to the site of injury are of a particular interest, and may avoid adverse side effects associated with pain medication taken orally or intravenously, explains Dr Roche.

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