Temperature, heart rate, blood pressure. Doctors take these measurements easily. But gauging aches and twinges isn’t so simple. Yet pain—both type and magnitude—is an important indicator of health. So doctors are seeking new ways to analyze pain.
Imagine a world with no headaches, cancer, or broken bones. God promises to end all pain someday, (Revelation 21:4) but on this Earth, humans will always have discomfort. In fact, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) estimates 25 million people in the United States experience daily pain.
The inability to accurately measure that pain causes problems. Doctors must guess at babies’ hurts by observing shrieks and squirms. Adult patients resort to 10-point scales or smiling-or-frowny-face charts to describe their pain. But one person’s number seven pain might be a four to someone who is more pain-tolerant.
Some researchers have found changes in brain activity—where different areas “light up”—that signal certain types of pain. Other doctors use scalp electrodes to measure pain through brain waves.
Dr. Julia Finkel is a children’s pain medicine specialist. Once, when treating a newborn, she wondered how to measure whether a certain medicine was giving the baby relief. After all, she says, “If we can’t measure pain, we can’t fix it.”
Suddenly, Finkel “realized the answer was staring right back at her”: The baby’s pupils would respond involuntarily (without control) to pain and to medicine. That’s because some nerves transmit pain signals to the brain along the same pathways that make pupils bigger or smaller.
From that experience, Finkel developed a handheld eye-tracking device. The tool measures pain by looking at a patient’s pupils. It helps determine the proper medicine and then monitors how it is working.
Doctors now use Finkel’s breakthrough device on 17-year-old Sarah Taylor. For years, Sarah struggled to make doctors understand her pain—first the swollen, aching joints of juvenile arthritis and then the body-wide pain of fibromyalgia.
“It’s really hard when people can’t see how much pain you’re in, because they have to take your word on it and sometimes, they don’t quite believe you,” Sarah says. Now scientists analyze Sarah’s eyes when she’s hurting. They track how her pupils react to different drugs and treatments.
The NIH wants further pain research. Scientists may never learn how to completely eliminate pain. But Dr. Finkel’s device and other pain measurements are big steps toward finally “seeing” the ouch so they can better treat it.