The burden of no proof

Because there is no objective way to measure chronic pain, people who suffer from it often struggle to convince others that their pain is real.

By Sharon Kirkey, Postmedia News October 2, 2011

Three months after breaking the fourth cervical vertebra in his neck in a freak hockey accident at the age of 17, Kurt Gengenbach began experiencing a new and spectacular kind of torment.

He started feeling pain in his left pectoral muscle - a constant burning, pins-andneedles sensation that slowly spread to his right shoulder, across his chest, down into his abdomen and finally through his legs and into his feet.

Gengenbach is a quadriplegic. He cannot move his arms or his legs. But he can feel pain. His ankles feel as if they're bound in thick, bonecrushing casts. A Kleenex against his bare shoulder can feel like a blowtorch. The skin on his chest is so hypersensitive he can't breathe deeply to relax when the pain hits, the way his therapist told him to, because expanding his chest makes his skin stretch, and it's torture. "Basically I'm paralysed by pain," he says.

The tragic irony - that a body that can't even move is still racked by continuing pain - is compounded, Gengenbach says, by the fact that sometimes people don't believe him.

Some of his attendants know that just moving his arm or touching him can be painful. "Others think, 'It can't hurt him that much,' and they just kind of throw me around," the Toronto resident says. "They don't believe it."

Canadian researchers are trying to stamp out once and for all the skepticism faced by many who suffer severe, persistent pain. The revolution in research Canadians are helping to lead is aimed at showing just how real pain is.

Researchers are using hightech imaging to show the human brain in the act of processing pain.

They're discovering how unrelenting, day-in and dayout pain can change the brain's anatomy (pain shrinks the brain in some areas) and how those abnormal changes can be reversed with successful treatment. They're discovering just how often poorly treated pain after surgery morphs into chronic pain that can last for years.