It is one of the sad realities of life in the aging lane that some sort of pain is pretty much a constant companion. On this quiet Sunday afternoon, for example, both my knees are sore from a bicycle ride yesterday, my lower back is telling me to leave that kettlebell on the floor, my left ankle is a bit stiff, and the index finger on my right hand is feeling downright arthritic.
None of this is particularly bothersome; mostly, this stuff just comes and goes. I don’t need pharmaceuticals to cope. But it does serve to remind me how the whole pain-management paradigm tends to dominate the lives of folks my age and older. A recent study from New York University found that the elderly are more likely than younger people to be undertreated by doctors for their pain — primarily because there’s an assumption that chronic pain is “normal” for us geezers. We’re just supposed to deal with it as the cost of living past our prime.
At some level, I get that. Of course, that’s easy for me to say, given that I’m not racked by unbearable pain most of the time. (I have some familiarity with “just kill me, please, and get it over with” pain, by the way. Kidney stones will get you there in a hurry.) But I was also intrigued to discover some new research that suggests we may be able to manage pain by simply manipulating the brain’s pain systems.
The study, conducted by scientists at University College London and published in the journal Current Biology, used what’s called the “thermal grill illusion” to shift the brain’s reception of pain signals. They applied heat to the ring and index fingers while cooling the middle finger. When applied simultaneously, the middle finger feels a burning sensation. This works because warming the two fingers blocks the brain from receiving the signals from the middle finger. “Cold normally inhibits pain, so inhibiting the input from the cold stimulus produces an increase in pain signals,” said Elisa Ferré, the study’s co-author. “It’s like two minuses making a plus.”
It gets weirder, though. Ferré and her colleagues found that, when the painful middle finger was crossed over the index finger, the burning sensation subsided. “Our results showed that a simple spatial pattern determined the burning heat sensation,” Ferré explained. “When the cold finger was positioned in between the two warm fingers, it felt burningly hot. When the cold finger was moved to an outside position, the burning sensation was reduced. The brain seemed to use the spatial arrangement of all three stimuli to produce the burning heat sensation on just one finger.”
The study’s senior author, Patrick Haggard, admits that the findings are only “laboratory science,” but suggests that it “raises the interesting possibility that pain levels could be manipulated by applying additional stimuli, and by moving one part of the body relative to others.”
Go ahead and try this at home, if you like, but you might want to lower your expectations. I crossed my middle finger over my arthritic index and held it there long enough to begin feeling foolish. It didn’t seem to make much difference. Maybe if I made a wish.