Research Brings New Treatments
Since many of us wake up on Jan. 1 with an awful headache, I thought I’d write about my own experience with pain.
Now that I’m all grown up, my New Year’s Eve celebrations have been pretty tame, or perhaps you might call them lame. Out here on the West Coast, the ball in Times Square drops at 9 p.m., and I’m in bed moments later.
Honestly, this is one of the holidays that I don’t get too excited about, but that hasn’t always been the case. I think the last time I had fun celebrating New Year’s Eve was a few months before I joined the Navy. My childhood friend and I took the train from Philadelphia to New York City with the intentions of ringing in the new year in Times Square. We were 22 and had stomachs made of cast iron and livers that could metabolize an endless supply of alcohol … or so we thought.
Back then, Times Square was nearing the end of a decades-long decline, and it had sunk to a level of seediness that I’ll never forget.
It was no place for naïve tourists like us. So, after watching the ball drop at midnight, we quickly jumped into a cab and drove to Greenwich Village. Safe from the bedlam, we ducked into The Bottom Line, a well-known music venue, to catch The Turtles featuring Flo & Eddie.
That’s the last thing I can remember about celebrating the end of 1987. When I woke up, it was 1988; I was on the floor of someone’s apartment, and I had a wicked hangover. Shortly after catching the first train back to Philly, I told my friend my pain was off the scale. He said he felt equally bad, but moments later he emptied the contents of his stomach. Honestly, I don’t remember him eating pozole the night before, and it was obvious our perception of pain was subjective.
It’s been more than three decades since that night of debauchery. However, I continue to experience high levels of pain — not from partying, but as a result of my spinal-cord injury (SCI). The pain in my right arm is triggered by light touch, so I dread wearing long-sleeved shirts or when someone touches my right hand. At night, I have to wear a mouthpiece to mitigate the damage from clenching and grinding my teeth.
When I was injured 33 years ago, my doctor told me there was no physical injury to my arm and suggested the pain I claimed to feel was simply imagined. Yes, he actually said that.
Despite what that doctor told me, I knew the pain was real. Years passed before a doctor took me seriously, and since then I’ve been prescribed various opioids and off-label medications, but none have given me long-term relief. I’ve tried acupuncture and meditation, but nothing seems to fix the problem. Sadly, so many of us have given up and have resorted to self-medicating with booze and unprescribed drugs.
According to The National Library of Medicine, up to 80% of patients with SCI develop or experience clinically significant neuropathic pain. Furthermore, according to the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, the annual incidence of SCI is approximately 18,000 new cases each year and there’s an estimated 302,000 people with SCI living in the United States.
That’s a lot of people living with a lot of pain. Therefore, understanding the pathophysiology of neuropathic pain is important. And there is one person who is getting close to launching a magic pill that will help us.
Stephen Waxman, MD, PhD, received the Speedy Award (non-member) from Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) in 2023. It’s PVA’s most prestigious award and is presented to a person who has significantly contributed to improving the quality of life for those of us with spinal-cord injury and disease.
Waxman founded the Center for Neuroscience and Regeneration Research at Yale University in 1988 and since then has made pivotal discoveries that explain pain after nerve injury.
After many years of research, Waxman has found that there’s a specific set of genes and molecules that produce neuropathic pain. And now, based largely on his work, there’s a new class of medications for neuropathic pain that’s currently in Phase II clinical trials. Simply put, he’s really close to making his magic pill available to anyone with chronic neuropathic pain.
I’m pretty sure Waxman’s research for pain relief can’t fix that hangover following a New Year’s Eve celebration, but it’s certainly good news for those of us with neuropathic pain.
And there’s more good news. I recently went back to Times Square with my wife. It’s been revitalized, and it’s an interesting place to visit as long as it’s not New Year’s Eve. Sadly, The Bottom Line closed its doors in 2004, Flo & Eddie retired in 2018, and the origin of that pozole remains a mystery.
I hope you have a peaceful and pain-free 2024!