The Secret World Of Pain Review: Those Who Can’t Feel A Thing

HORIZON – THE SECRET WORLD OF PAIN: Monday 31st January, BBC 2, 9PM

For most of us, pain as a concept is something that we don’t spare a second thought: you stub your toe; it hurts for a bit, then it subsides. But for scientists, the experience of pain makes for fascinating study and an understanding of it can potentially unlock new methods of treatment and pain relief.

Horizon reveals the latest research into pain and the breakthroughs that have been made, through studies on everyone from a woman in London who has felt no pain in her entire life, to a man in the US who cut off his own arm to survive, after it became lodged in a furnace.

Geneticist Dr. John Woods travels the world “in search of people who feel pain in strange ways or don’t feel pain at allâ€? and believes that the secret of pain lies in our DNA. Indeed, after two years of studying the DNA of three generations of an Italian family who don’t feel extremes of temperature, he discovers the family share a mutation in their genes which blocks the pathway to certain types of pain and thus names the syndrome after them.

Similarly, a woman in London who feels no pain at all (she recalls an early experience where her mother, upon smelling “burning fleshâ€?, found her kneeling on a radiator and had to tear her off by the skin) describes her relief at finally being able to explain her condition.

Meanwhile, we learn about the significance of early life experiences and their importance in developing our pain pathways. An experiment on the brain activity of premature babies (who have therefore undergone intensive care treatment) compared with full term babies demonstrates a remarkable difference in brain activity, suggesting the premature babies have an increased sensitivity to pain.

The programme also speaks to leading pain researcher Professor Irene Tracey, who believes pain is “generated in the mindâ€?. Tracey carries out experiments where people are administered with a small amount of pain while viewing images of shapes. Her findings demonstrate that once the brain makes an association between pain and a particular shape, the next time the person views that shape, their expectation and anxiety of pain increases and they therefore experience heightened discomfort.

In other cases, psychological treatments are used to counteract pain, including a burns patient who plays a pioneering computer game ‘snow world’ while his bandages are being changed, which reduces his discomfort significantly by distracting the brain so that it does not have enough capacity to process pain.

The Secret World of Pain uncovers some interesting research and findings, while meeting some unique people along the way. The ultimate reminder of why this research is so beneficial is evident in the jubilant tears of a young artist, who after five years of continual pain following a stroke, is finally relieved of some of the pain through a series of magnetic pulses.

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