Showing doctors where it hurts

September 21, 2011 3:04:13 PM PDT
Pain affects more Americans than diabetes, heart disease and cancer combined.

But for years, patients with chronic neck pain from an accident were met with disbelief. Now, a new diagnostic tool is helping pinpoint and see the pain for the first time -- giving hope to the 60-million people suffering with chronic pain in the U.S.

Taking time to enjoy the tulips reminds former gardener Cora of her passion.

"I had a terrific job," she said.

But that was taken away from her 14 years ago when a car slammed into hers -- the driver distracted by a map.

"The next thing I remember, he was standing and shouting and thinking that he had killed us," Cora said.

Cora was rushed to the hospital with whiplash trauma. She was soon released when doctors didn't see anything wrong with her x-rays. Once home, she began having severe headaches and neck pain and has been in constant pain ever since -- unable to work or get back to gardening. With one in five people suffering from chronic pain, it's a scenario Dr. Torsten Gordh sees often.

"There's been great difficulty for the patient and difficulties for the doctor because we haven't understood the pain problem in depth. We have only had a description, and that makes it difficult to work with," Gordh, professor of Pain Medicine at Uppsala University Hospital in Sweden, said.

Gordh is part of a team that developed a first of its kind tool to literally "see" where the pain is coming from. A tracer marked with positrons is first injected into the bloodstream. The substance then pools together at the site of the pain, marking the inflammation. Doctors can pinpoint the site through the use of a pet scan.

"It's like a discovery of sort of X-ray for pain," Gordh said.

One that could lead to better treatments and one day help people like Cora.

A Swedish insurance company funded the trial to better understand the nature of pain, especially whiplash-related pain. The trial is ongoing, but the results could help both insurance companies and patients prove or disprove pain claims.