Got Pain? Researchers Have Some Ideas That May Surprise You
April 14, 2000 (New York) -- Researchers seeking new ways to relieve the pain that persistently plagues many Americans are looking in some unusual places: a snail found in the Philippines, a poisonous frog from Ecuador, and the marijuana plant.
According to a recent Gallup survey, pain is a fact of life for many in the U.S., with 46% of women and 37% of men reporting that they experience some pain daily. Pain can be acute, or short-lived, like that experienced after an accident; or chronic, meaning it lasts long after an injury has healed or is due to persistent inflammation or nerve damage. Some diseases, such as diabetes and shingles, can cause long-term pain that is difficult to treat.
Several types of pain medication are now commonly used, but all have drawbacks. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDS, and the anti-inflammatory drug Tylenol are used for milder pain. But they don't work on all types of pain, and some may result in side effects such as bleeding in the intestinal tract. For more severe pain, doctors may give narcotics, which can cause problems such as slowed breathing and constipation, and which can also be addictive with prolonged use. This has led researchers to look for drugs that have the same actions without the side effects.
A review in the April issue of Nature Biotechnology describes research that is uncovering how pain is eased and that is leading to the development of drugs from marijuana, peppers, snails, and frogs that target particular pain-production centers in the body, among other things.
One area of research involves the marijuana derivatives called cannabinoids. Like narcotics such as morphine and codeine, cannabinoids interfere with the area of the brain that perceives pain. Research at the University of California in San Francisco suggests that cannabinoids are more effective than opioids for some types of chronic pain. But cannabinoid research is controversial, and researchers are focusing on separating the compound's useful characteristics from the euphoric properties that make marijuana attractive to drug abusers.
Peppers are another hot area of pain research. Investigators treating patients with overactive bladders and a diabetes-related condition in which people experience pain in their extremities are working with a derivative of capsaicin, the main ingredient in hot peppers. Capsaicin itself is a pain reliever, but researchers say the derivative seems to have fewer side effects.