Diagnosis: My Genes Hurt

Are chromosomes to blame for chronic pain?

By Katherine Schreiber, published on January 1, 2012 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

 Young woman touching her back in pain

Can silencing a gene save you from suffering? The extent of pain a person feels is determined in part by the firing rate of nerve cells in the affected area. Blocking a gene that regulates electrical signaling may provide a way to dial down the firing rate and abolish the often crippling pain caused by nerve damage.

To mimic the sensitivity of human chronic pain sufferers, University of Cambridge scientists exposed a nerve in the thighs of mice. Half were genetically engineered so that their pain-sensitive neurons lacked the HCN2 gene. Like humans with chronic pain, the normal mice responded to heat, cold, and minor pinpricks by immediately pulling back. But mice without the HCN2 gene endured the discomfort for longer. 

"This is a stunning discovery," says study author Peter McNaughton. "All modes of pain hypersensitivity were completely absent."

What does this mean? Not much—yet. "The next challenge is to develop HCN2 blockers that could target pain-sensitive neurons in humans," says McNaughton. Such drugs won't hit the market for at least another eight to ten years.

Finding Relief

Gene therapy takes time to develop, and often doesn't pan out at all. Can't wait? Here are ways to get some relief right now.

  • Exercise "Being overweight exacerbates chronic pain," says Mark Borigini, a rheumatologist at the NIH. And strong muscles can take a load off achy joints.

  • Medication While there's no magic pill, certain drugs can help, Borigini says, citing pregabalin as one example. And anti- depressants like duloxetine can also reduce pain perception.

  • Sleep "Those who have better sleep have less pain," Borigini observes. Try keeping your bedroom as dark as possible.

  • Support "People with chronic pain often feel alone," notes Borigini, which worsens their day-to-day difficulties. Support groups can alleviate isolation and enable fellow sufferers to exchange advice. Check your local hospital or contact the Arthritis Foundation for more information.