Dramatic increases in prescribing opioid analgesics have occurred against a backdrop of limited availability of alternative pain treatments and insufficient data regarding the long-term safety and efficacy of opioid therapy. Tragically, more than 16,000 deaths a year are reported in the United States from pain medication overdoses, exceeding deaths attributed to heroin and cocaine combined.

How far behind are we?

Chronic pain must become a national investment priority to make significant progress in relieving suffering and preventing pain medication misuse and deaths. Much larger financial commitments in medical science research, such as decoding the human genome and halting the HIV epidemic, have been nothing short of transformative.

Is the daily suffering of 100 million Americans less important? Even the most optimistic estimates indicate that pain research is woefully underfunded relative to its prevalence, disease burden and economic toll.

Outlining the way forward

Recognizing this dilemma, the American Pain Society developed the Pain Research Agenda for the 21st Century, which identifies promising but underfunded approaches to develop new treatments and to help make currently used pain medications safer, more effective and maybe unnecessary.

“Even the most optimistic estimates indicate that pain research is woefully underfunded relative to its prevalence, disease burden and economic toll.”

Investments in pain research will enable pain scientists to better understand biology of pain and how pain becomes a chronic disease. The good news is: pain research has produced significant advances that identify promising paths for treatment, such as interventions targeted at blocking pain signals at their source and therapeutics that disrupt or reverse molecular pain mechanisms.

This year, NIH announced its National Pain Strategy, which is long overdue and will hopefully play a catalytic role in heightening public awareness about chronic pain, its impact on society and in turn, instill the understanding that allocating more resources for pain research is the best hope to achieving meaningful scientific advances. Skeptics may ask if increasing dollars spent for pain research will pay off. I would respond by referring to a recent survey of neurologists, which reported that the most transformative pain drug of the past decade is considered to be the triptan class for migraines.

Research means discoveries

Pain research is responsible for that achievement, as triptan drugs were identified in pre-clinical studies searching for compounds with a specific mechanism. It was a milestone success in translating basic science discoveries into a human therapy.

To ease suffering from chronic pain and reduce reliance on opioids, we must achieve more breakthrough discoveries like this. It can be done, even though medical research funding is under pressure. It is imperative, therefore, for funding agencies to allocate grants based on disease burden and economic impact. Pain should be at the top of that list.