In the UK, chronic pain affects 43% of the population, or 28 million people — a staggering number underscoring the urgent need for effective pain management solutions in helping individuals cope with pain and live life to the full.

In the UK, the most common causes of pain include arthritis, which affects over 10 million people; back pain and lumbago, affecting over 8 million people; cancer, with one in two people diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime; neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, and stroke; and skin diseases, affecting 60% of British people at some point in their lives.

According to the British Pain Society, chronic pain — defined as pain that lasts longer than three months — costs the UK economy approximately £12 billion annually in lost productivity and healthcare expenses, while reports from the HSE indicate that the UK has lost over 9.46 million workdays due to musculoskeletal problems, 2.96 million of which were affecting the back.  

The mental health implications and social impact of living with pain is another core issue, with chronic pain sufferers being four times more likely to experience anxiety or depression compared to those without pain, according to a study published in the Journal of Pain Research. In the US, it’s reported chronic pain sufferers will earn 37% less income.

As the healthcare landscape evolves, alongside the rise of AI, organisations and healthcare professionals are exploring cutting-edge technologies, techniques and ground-breaking research to drive a broad range of solutions for pain management that often work in combination with each other.

WATCH: ITN Business interviews Versus Arthritis’ Chief Executive, Deborah Alsina, as part of our Joint Health programme.

A holistic, multidisciplinary approach combines medical treatments with physical therapy, psychological support, and lifestyle changes to address the multifaceted nature of chronic pain.

Here, we first take a look at the different types of pain, and five innovations that could prove game-changing in the coming years.

Chronic pain

Chronic pain is persistent pain that lasts for more than three months or beyond the normal healing time. It can be continuous or intermittent, with examples include arthritis, back pain, fibromyalgia, and neuropathic pain. Treatment often requires a multidisciplinary approach, consisting of medication (such as NSAIDs, opioids, or antidepressants), alongside physical therapy, psychological support, and sometimes alternative therapies like acupuncture.

Neuropathic pain

Neuropathic pain arises from damage or dysfunction of the nervous system. It’s often described as shooting, burning, or stabbing pain. Examples include diabetic neuropathy, shingles, multiple sclerosis, and phantom limb pain.

Treatment may include medications such as anticonvulsants, antidepressants, topical agents, and nerve blocks. Non-pharmacological treatments like physical therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), and complementary therapies can also be beneficial.

Acute pain

Acute pain is short-term pain that typically occurs suddenly and has a specific cause, such as injury, surgery, or illness. It usually resolves once the underlying cause is treated. Pain from cuts, fractures, surgical procedures, or infections are just a few examples.

Treatment often includes medications like analgesics and anti-inflammatories, rest, ice, compression, and elevation (RICE) for injuries, and sometimes physical therapy.

Post-surgical pain

This is pain that occurs after surgical procedures, often as a result of tissue damage, inflammation, or nerve injury. Pain management strategies include medication (opioids, NSAIDs, local anesthetics), nerve blocks, physical therapy, and sometimes psychological support to manage anxiety and stress associated with recovery.

New solutions and innovations in pain management

1. Digital health tools

Digital health tools are revolutionising the way chronic pain is managed. A growing number of apps and wearable devices are emerging that allow patients to track their pain levels, medication usage and triggers, providing valuable data for healthcare providers that can then be used to tailor treatment plans. Examples of popular apps include Curable, Pathways Pain Relief, and Manage my Pain.

PainChek is one app that uses facial recognition technology to assess pain levels in patients who have difficulty communicating, such as those with dementia. PainChek’s AI algorithms analyse facial expressions to provide an objective pain score, helping caregivers and medical professionals make informed decisions.

2. Neuromodulation techniques

Neuromodulation involves stimulating nerves to alter pain signals, providing relief for chronic pain sufferers. Techniques such as spinal cord stimulation and peripheral nerve stimulation are being refined and increasingly adopted around the world.

The Walton Centre, a specialist NHS neuroscience hospital in Liverpool, is at the forefront of neuromodulation research. Their studies indicate that spinal cord stimulation can significantly reduce pain and improve the quality of life for patients with conditions like neuropathic pain and complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS).

3. Virtual Reality (VR) therapy

VR therapy is emerging as a powerful tool for pain management. By immersing patients in virtual environments, VR can distract from pain and reduce anxiety, offering a non-pharmacological approach to pain relief.

Oxford VR is a UK-based company developing VR treatments for various conditions. Their VR programs guide patients through immersive scenarios designed to manage pain and anxiety, demonstrating significant improvements in pain perception and quality of life.

4. Personalised medicine

Personalised medicine tailors treatment to individual genetic profiles, offering more effective and targeted pain management strategies. Genetic testing can identify how patients metabolise pain medications, leading to customised treatment plans that minimise side effects and maximise efficacy.

Researchers at University College London (UCL) are exploring the genetic basis of pain, aiming to develop personalised pain management plans. Their work focuses on identifying genetic markers that predict response to various pain treatments, paving the way for more effective and individualized therapies.

5. Patient-controlled analgesia (PCA)

Patient-controlled analgesia allows patients to manage their pain by administering their own doses of pain relief within prescribed limits. This method usually involves pumps for intravenous or epidural delivery of opioids or local anesthetics. It can lead to more immediate pain relief for patients and better control over pain levels, compared to scheduled dosing by healthcare providers.

This consistent management can aid in quicker mobilisation and recovery post-surgery, and provides the patient with autonomy and empowerment to control their own pain relief. It also reduces the frequency of nursing interventions, enabling nurses to focus on other aspects of patient care.

Collaborative efforts and support networks

The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) funds a wide range of research projects aimed at improving pain management. Their support helps bridge the gap between laboratory research and clinical application, ensuring that innovations reach those patients in need.

Organisations like Pain UK and The British Pain Society provide invaluable resources and support networks for individuals living with chronic pain. These groups advocate for better pain management policies, offer educational resources, and create communities where patients can share experiences and support each other.

ITN Business’ upcoming programme

 

Pathways to Pain Management’ is ITN Business’ latest in-depth news-style programme exploring how organisations, healthcare professionals and experts in the field are developing cutting-edge technology, innovative solutions and ground-breaking research to help individuals manage and cope with pain, so they can live fuller lives. Featured themes include pain tech, innovation and wearables, health inequalities and the social impact pain has on a person’s life.