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New tool helps doctors pinpoint chronic pain

September 2, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
Chronic pain affects millions of Americans.

But for years, patients with chronic neck pain from accidents were often met with frustration. A new diagnostic tool is helping doctors pinpoint and actually see pain for the first time.

Cora, only going by her first name, suffers from chronic pain. She says she had a terrific job as a gardner. But that was taken away from her 14 years ago when a car slammed into hers- the driver was distracted by a map.

"The next thing I remember, he was standing and shouting and thinking that he had killed us," said Cora.

Cora was rushed to the hospital with whiplash trauma. She was soon released when doctors didn't see anything wrong with her x-rays.

Once home, she began having severe headaches and neck pain and has been in constant pain ever since- unable to work or get back to gardening.

With one in five people suffering from chronic pain, it's a scenario Dr. Torsten Gordh sees often.

"There's been great difficulty for the patient and difficulties for the doctor because we haven't understood the pain problem in depth," said Gordh. "We have only had a description, and that makes it difficult to work with."

Gordh is part of a team at Uppsala University Hospital in Sweden that's developed a first of its kind tool to literally see where the pain is coming from.

A tracer marked with positrons is first injected into the bloodstream. The substance then pools together at the site of the pain, marking the inflammation. Doctors can pinpoint the site through the use of a pet scan.

"It's like a discovery of sort of x-ray for pain," said Gordh.

It is one that could lead to better treatments and one day help people like Cora.

A Swedish company funded the trial to better understand the nature of pain, especially whiplash-related pain. The trial is ongoing, but the results could help both insurance companies and patients prove or disprove pain claims.

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