Superstars of STEM: Exploring the mystery of back pain
It’s a debilitating condition that affects millions. Australian researcher Siobhan Schabrun is trying to find out why. Dion Pretorius reports.
For a condition that is estimated to affect 540 million people at any given time, very little is known about persistent back pain.
The condition is experienced by roughly 10% of people in countries such as Australia and England, making it the leading cause of lost productivity worldwide.
Siobhan Schabrun, a scientist at Neuroscience Research Australia, an independent medical research institute based in Sydney, leads a team of researchers working to understand why some people get better after hurting their backs, while others develop pain that doesn’t go away.
“Even though persistent pain is extremely debilitating, it has traditionally been dismissed as being ‘all in the mind’,” she explains.
“As a result, very little research has been done on the causes of persistent pain and there are currently no treatments available.”
Schabrun says that understanding this condition better will lead to new treatments.
To explore what causes persistent pain and identify those most at risk of developing it, Schabrun’s team uses non-invasive brain stimulation techniques.
In one trial, her team spent a year following 120 people who had suffered back injuries. The researchers found that those who had low levels of activity in brain regions relating to sensation and movement were more likely to develop persistent pain.
This finding was supported by a second study in which healthy individuals received injections that caused them to develop pain that lasted for several weeks.
“Those who had low brain activity developed much worse pain and took longer to recover,” Schabrun said.
“With this information, we have begun to unravel the mystery of why some people are more susceptible to persistent pain than others.
“This could unlock new treatments for persistent pain that target the brain directly and allow early intervention.”
According to advocacy organisation Pain Australia, early intervention and evidence-based treatment of chronic pain could halve the $34 billion cost to the country’s economy.
Schabrun’s team has already begun to test new treatments that increase brain activity by using weak electrical signals delivered through pads placed on the scalp.
“Although it’s early days, these treatments could change the way the brain is wired and reduce persistent back pain,” she says.
This article is part of a weekly series prepared by Science & Technology Australia (STA). To learn more about the program, visit the STA website.