Antwerp doctors test new ways to measure pain

Summary

Doctors at University Hospital Antwerp are the first in the world to test devices that objectively measure the amount of acute or chronic pain from which patients are suffering

Does this hurt?

Until now, the common practice to measure pain consisted of asking patients to say a number between 0 and 10. Of course, that is not a very reliable method, as pain is a highly subjective feeling and can vary drastically between patients. But doctors often need to know how much pain a patient is actually feeling – and whether the pain is bearable or not.

In the last few months, the University Hospital Antwerp (UZA) has been employing two devices that measure pain objectively. Developed by an Israeli firm, UZA’s pain clinic is the first in the world to utilise these devices.

One of the devices quantifies acute pain by measuring seven parameters in the autonomic nervous system through a sensor attached to the patient’s finger. “These parameters are closely connected to the nervous system, by which the device calculates a number called the pain index,” explains Guy Hans, co-ordinator of the pain clinic at UZA. “That number can be measured in real time, even when the patient is under an anaesthetic.”

According to Hans, this device proves useful for anaesthetists who want to give patients only a minimal amount of anaesthetic, though enough so that they no longer feel pain. It is also useful when using anaesthesia on obese persons and people with certain pulmonary membrane disorders. “Thanks to this device, we can deliver the optimal amount of the anaesthetic, and we can even adjust it during the operation,” he says. 

According to Hans, this device proves useful for anaesthetists who want to give patients only a minimal amount of anaesthetic, though enough so that they no longer feel pain. It is also useful when using anaesthesia on obese persons and people with certain pulmonary membrane disorders. “Thanks to this device, we can deliver the optimal amount of the anaesthetic, and we can even adjust it during the operation,” he says.

Different tool for different pain

The second device measures chronic pain, which is very different from acute pain. To understand chronic pain, it is important to know the patient’s natural pain inhibition system. Therefore, doctors have to first measure the threshold values for the detection of heat, extreme heat, cold and extreme cold.

When they deduct these threshold values from the pain index the device has measured between the nerves of the spinal cord and the brain, they know exactly how much chronic pain the patient is suffering from.

The devices are currently being used in a pilot project on 100 UZA patients. “This is a real breakthrough in pain research,” says Hans. “By using the devices with many patients, we can determine certain reference values for different kinds of pain. And I believe that these measurements will be part of a standard treatment in the near future.”