Tonight I’m throwing it back to this amazing 2011 lecture on chronic pain given by Dr. Elliot Krane of Stanford University.
I found his talk around the time I was first starting this blog, back in 2012, and it really inspired me to try to tell my own story with complex pain problems.
Dr. Krane is a pediatrician and an anesthesiologist. He specializes in treating children with chronic pain disorders at the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford University.
In this talk, Dr. Krane outlines the case of a young girl who developed CRPS following a wrist sprain, and was successfully treated at his hospital.
He has some really great quotes and soundbites about chronic pain– things I want to remember, and things I think will be useful in trying to explain the multi-layered nature of pain to people who don’t quite get it (yet).
So here, I’m just going to take a few notes so I (and you, if you’re interested) can come back and remember some key points really quickly:
Most of the time, we think of pain as a symptom of a disease– the result of an infection or a tumor, an inflammation or an operation. But about 10% of the time, after a patient recovers from one of those events, the pain persists for months or even years. In those cases, pain can become its own disease.
Chronic pain is “a positive feedback loop…. It’s almost as if somebody came into your home and rewired yours walls so that the next time you turned on the light switch, the toilet flushed three doors down, or your dishwasher went on, or your computer monitor turned off. It sounds crazy, but that’s what happens with chronic pain.”
Glial cells (a particular type of cell found in the nervous system) were once thought to be unimportant. When I learned about them in my PT prerequisite classes, we thought of them as the supportive “glue” that provides a safe environment for neurons, the more interesting cells that were actually responsible for sending messages.
But, Dr. Krane explains, it turns out that glial cells can play a vital role in the “modulation, amplification and, in the case of pain, the distortion of sensory experiences.” Once glial cells are triggered by chronic pain, they become overactive and help initiate that the positive feedback loop he mentioned.
Some other quotes:
“The nervous system has plasticity. It changes, and it morphs in response to stimuli.”
“We treat these patients in a rather crude fashion at this point in time. ”
Dr. Krane describes the treatment protocol for CRPS patients at his center:
- symptom modifying drugs (painkillers) “which are frankly, not very effective for this type of pain”
- “We take nerves that are noisy and active that should be quiet, and we put them to sleep with local anesthetics.”
- “Most importantly… we use a rigorous and often uncomfortable process of physical therapy and occupational therapy to retrain the nervous system to respond normally to the activities and sensory experiences that are part of everyday life.“
The future is actually even brighter:
“…the future holds the promise that new drugs will be developed that are not symptom-modifying drugs that simply mask the problem, as we have now, but that will be disease-modifying drugs, that will actually go right to the root of the problem and attack those glial cells….that spill over and cause this central nervous system wind-up…”
It’s really interesting for me to look back on this talk, now, and see how my perspective has changed since I first watched it in 2011. Back then, the point about glial cells largely went over my head (probably because I wasn’t invested at all in knowing what they were).
Now that I’ve taken anatomy & physiology as well as an undergraduate neuroscience course, I can actually see how groundbreaking this really is, to identify glial cells as a potential source of the problem.
It’s as though you’re looking at a telephone pole, and you realize that the wooden pole itself was sending signals, instead of just being there to hold up the electrical wires. (If that metaphor makes sense).
Anyway, I really hope Dr. Krane is right, that we can begin to develop drugs that will target this mechanism for chronic pain.
Hope you enjoyed this talk!