How Pain Impacts SCI

April 15, 2024

A nurse attends to a patient at the Craig H. Neilsen Rehabilitation Hospital in Utah. The female nurse smiles as she places a comforting hand on the male patient's shoulder. He is wearing a headband and a clear mask to aid his breathing.
A nurse attends to a patient

Managing pain is one of the highest priorities for the spinal cord injury (SCI) community. When a person loses feeling in part of their body due to a SCI, they might not feel a touch or a pinch, but they may still experience severe and chronic pain in those areas. This kind of pain is the result of changes in the spinal nerves and how the brain interprets them. Scientists are working to understand why these changes create pain as a guide to developing more effective treatment options.

There are many approaches to pain relief. Available drugs help alleviate the pain for some, but they carry risks of side effects or addiction, and, unfortunately, many people with SCI have pain that is drug resistant. Other needed options are being studied, including the use of stem cell-derived grafts to silence pain messages within the spinal cord. These cellular therapies are still being tested only in laboratories, and so these potential solutions are on a longer-term horizon.

Other alternatives to drugs are part of combination treatments in rehabilitation. Exercise therapies and psychological treatments, like yoga and massage, are proving successful. So are some types of nerve stimulation. Hypnosis has been added to the mix, with people finding effective relief from a guided state of relaxation and calm. Scientists are now studying exactly how this helps reduce pain so they can better understand and incorporate hypnosis into therapy.

While these scientists have made strides, there is still much to be done. In addition to funding research to learn more about SCI pain and develop more effective treatments, the Neilsen Foundation also supports work that looks at the effect that chronic pain has on people’s lives and helps them understand and cope with it. Chronic pain impacts both physical and mental health. It can lead to—or worsen—depression, isolation, and anxiety issues that can thwart rehabilitation and progress, destroy hope, and lead to other health issues.

Psychosocial researchers and therapists are helping individuals with SCI and their caregivers learn to cope with pain, and keep it from interfering in an active, healthy lifestyle. Drawing from these studies, Neilsen Foundation grantee partners at the University of Miami have developed educational materials to better inform people about the pain they experience and make them aware of alternative methods of pain relief. New materials have also been developed to inform doctors about the experience of pain after SCI and how best to relieve and manage it. And research at Oakland University and the University of Minnesota is identifying how people with SCI convey their pain to their healthcare providers. The results will help create a shared decision-making tool that will address the needs of patients and their doctors.

Understanding chronic pain and seeking therapies that provide relief are critical. There are opportunities to think creatively, reexamine existing treatments, and we are eager to see new ideas yet to be presented. We are proud to continue with funding to grantee partners who help us to achieve our mission. These researchers are seeking the answers and breakthroughs that will bring comfort to those who need it most.