If you’re one of the 50 million people fighting arthritis pain every day, you can can take comfort in the fact that scientists are working hard to identify the causes of pain – especially chronic pain – and to determine how different individuals react to pain and develop better ways to treat that pain.

Pain specialist Doris Cope, MD, at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, sees two important areas of research: Understanding pain’s causes and determining why some patients react differently to treatments than others.

“We’re developing a better idea of the keys to pain. What are the specific mechanisms involved? What makes pain go on and on? Can we avoid chronic pain?” says Dr. Cope.

In hospital settings, pain is monitored as a vital sign, just like heart rate or blood pressure, but in outpatient settings, it can be overlooked, says Eric Hsu, MD, a pain specialist at the University of California, Los Angeles, Medical Center. “In daily office practice, I don’t see that happening, because it’s not required, but we need to document a patient’s pain and his reactions,” he says.

Good communication between you and your doctor can make arthritis pain something you treat, not something you live with day to day. “If a patient is suffering, we should be advocates for that patient.”

Pain-Tackling Innovations
While some new treatments are in the research stage, existing drugs used for other conditions and innovative delivery methods are promising developments for fighting chronic pain, say pain management specialists.

Among these new developments:

  • Duloxetine (Cymbalta). An antidepressant already on the market for depression and used to treat fibromyalgia, this drug is now approved for treatment of OA and lower back pain. It’s promising for people with chronic arthritis pain, says Dr. Hsu.
  • Buprenorphine transdermal patch (BuTrans). Delivering small doses of opioid analgesic through the skin, this patch can be changed by the patient once every seven days. “It’s a little different mechanism. It will not reduce side effects completely, but since it bypasses the gastrointestinal system and is continuous, it’s a good alternative,” says Dr. Hsu. Existing analgesic patches using fentanyl deliver a strong dose of narcotics to the patient all at once, raising concerns about side effects, he says.