There are some things in life that we generally know can cause pain: touching a hot stove, getting a paper cut, stubbing your toe. Ouch!
But it turns out that we don’t all experience pain the same way, and our genes are partly to be blame.
“We’re predisposed for how sensitive we are to pain,” says Kathleen Brady, MD, PhD, vice president of research at the Medical University of South Carolina and a Genomind Scientific Advisory Board Member.
For fleeting, minor pains in healthy individuals, these genetic differences may not make an obvious impact on day-to-day life. However, for the millions of Americans living with chronic pain, it can.
In fact, up to 50 percent of this predisposition for chronic pain is heritable, according to a review in Neuroscience. For example, this means you may have a higher risk of developing migraines, low back pain, or other chronic pain condition if a parent has that condition.
Dealing with chronic pain? Here’s what you should know about the causes and treatments.
How You Feel Pain
Usually, how you feel pain is a lightning-fast process.
You injure yourself, and your body’s autonomic response stimulates pain receptors, which sends a signal to the spinal cord that carries it to the thalamus and cerebral cortex areas of the brain. Then the signal retraces its path back to the location of the injury, and you feel pain.
This is what happens for acute or short-term pain, and it serves an important purpose: to let you know that you may be hurt.
When this process doesn’t function normally, chronic or persistent pain occurs. Pain signals in your nervous system may keep firing for months and even years, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
Depending on your particular condition, chronic pain can show up in various parts of your body. Arthritis can cause achy joints. Irritable bowel syndrome can lead to belly pain. Fibromyalgia can mean pain all over the body.
Chronic pain can also have a major impact on your quality of life. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, chronic pain has been linked to reduced mobility, difficulties in school or at work, and anxiety and depression.
The Genetic Factors of Pain
Scientists know that pain sensitivity is partly determined by genetic factors. But if you’re looking for a single gene that’s responsible for your pain tolerance, you’re out of luck—at least for now.
“We really don’t know which genes are in control of pain,” Dr. Brady says.
That’s because there are many genes that may be involved, and chronic pain may be influenced by a complex network of molecular interactions, according to the Neuroscience review.
The SCN9A gene, for example, is in charge of the sodium channels that play a role in relaying pain signals from the body’s tissues to the central nervous system. Mutations in this gene can cause those channels to open too easily or make them unable to close, leading to more pain in an individual. In some cases, this can result in severe pain attacks.
Other mutations in the same gene cause these channels to break down, leading to the exact opposite: the inability to sense pain at all.
Even though we don’t know yet exactly how our genes determine pain, it’s clear they play a powerful role.
How to Treat Pain
When it comes to treating pain with medication, the type of pain matters. “Inflammatory pain, headache pain, that kind of stuff, that’s when you use anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen,” Dr. Brady says. “Some of the deeper and chronic muscle pain, that’s when people use opioids.”
Antidepressants and anticonvulsants are other common medications that may be used to treat chronic pain, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians.
In addition to medication, your clinician may recommend behavioral therapy, exercise, breathing techniques, and other strategies to manage pain.
Got Chronic Pain? Follow These Steps
With so many options, how do you and your clinican find the right treatment for you? One key is open and honest communication.
Provide as Much Information as Possible
This will help your clinician make a proper diagnosis. Ultimately, your pain treatment depends on the type of pain you’re experiencing. “So you have to be careful about your pain diagnosis,” Dr. Brady says.
Let Your Clinician Know About Any Medications You Take
This includes prescriptions, over-the-counter drugs, and supplements. Your clinician may also ask if you use alcohol or other substances. This information helps your clinician watch out for harmful drug-drug interactions.
Follow Any Medication Instructions as Provided
You should also know any possible side effects. If you don’t find adequate pain relief, let your clinician know.
Ask for More Help
If you’ve tried treatments for chronic pain and struck out, asking for help is especially important. Pharmacogenetic testing (PGx), for example, tells your clinician how you might metabolize medications, based on your genes. This can help your clinician make a more informed decision about your care.
Does Your Medication Work for You?
Now there is a smarter way to treat pain. Genomind’s pharmacogenetic test was designed to help your clinician personalize your treatment plan and help you avoid the painful process of trial and error. Learn more about Genomind here.