Scientists are unraveling the mysteries of pain

With the opioid crisis, the quest to understand the biology of pain and explore new ways to treat it has taken on fresh urgency.

Vitaly Napadow, a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, studies how the brain perceives pain. To do that, he uses electroencephalography to track the brain wave patterns of patients with chronic lower back pain.
Photograph by ROBERT CLARK

More than three decades ago, when Tom Norris was fighting cancer, he underwent radiation therapy on his groin and his left hip. His cancer disappeared and hasn’t come back. But Norris was left with a piercing ache that burned from his hip up his spine to his neck.

Since then, Norris, now 70, has never had a single day free from pain. It cut short his career as an aircraft maintenance officer in the U.S. Air Force. It’s been his constant companion, like the cane he uses to walk. On bad days, the pain is so excruciating, he’s bedridden. Even on the best days, it severely limits his ability to move about, preventing him from doing the simplest chores, like taking out the garbage. Sometimes the pain is so overpowering, Norris says, that his breathing becomes labored. “It’s like I’m drowning.”

Norris, who lives in a Los Angeles suburb, spoke to me from a long, cushioned bench, which allowed him to go from sitting to lying flat on his back. A tall and genial man, he’s become adept at wearing a mask of serenity to hide his pain. I never saw him wince. When his agony is especially intense, his wife of 31 years, Marianne, says she can tell by a certain stillness she sees in his eyes.

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