Man massaging his aching calf

Breaking through the pain barrier: our latest research

From a passing headache to chronic back pain: most of us have experienced pain at some point in our lives. If left untreated, it can have a devastating impact on the quality of our lives, as well as on the economy – sick days due to body pain cost an estimated £191 billion globally, every year.

At GSK, we’re determined to break through the pain barrier, and through a dedicated team of scientists in our Consumer Healthcare business, we are working hard to better understand why we experience pain; and to develop more effective pain relief treatments for people around the world.

Pain is our body’s internal alarm system

While pain is unpleasant, it’s important. Our bodies have evolved a clever pain mechanism to protect us. Many instances of pain act like a signal to warn someone they are in danger. For instance, when skin is broken, pain occurs to indicate that the area should be protected until it heals.  

“If the body is damaged in some way, pain signals are sent from the damaged area, through the spinal cord, along specialised nerve fibres and towards the brain,” explains our principal research scientist for topical pain relief, Salvador Rios Martinez.

“The brain then interprets the pain signal and localises where in the body is damaged, allowing the body to respond and react.”

We can experience two different types of pain. One is neuropathic, which is caused by a malfunction of, or damage to, the nervous system. This is often described as a dull, aching pain. The other type is a nociceptive signal, caused by damage to body tissue. This usually manifests as a sharp, or throbbing pain.

Understanding the impact of pain

Developing effective medicines for pain is reliant on scientists like Salvador understanding how individuals feel and react when they’re experiencing it. To do this, we need to combine social science with lab-based science. For the past two years, we have produced the Global Pain Index (GPI), which uncovers people’s attitudes towards physical pain and the impact that pain has on their lives. 

Global Pain Index 2017

  • 2 in 10

    pain sufferers believe pain has affected their career progression

  • ~50%

    Nearly 50% of people think pain has affected their performance at work

  • 56%

    56% of people have experienced body pain on a weekly basis for a prolonged period of time

The latest GPI reveals the significant impact of pain worldwide. More than half – 56% – of people surveyed claimed to have experienced body pain on a weekly basis, for a prolonged period of time, at some point in their life.

When asked to think about how this pain affected their lives, two in ten pain sufferers admitted to believing their pain affected their career progression, with nearly half of people saying they thought that pain directly affected their performance at work. People also spoke about the negative effect that pain had on their social and family lives, with one respondent saying: “I could be a better parent without pain.”

More than half of people globally (56 per cent) have experienced pain on a weekly basis, at some point in their life
More than half of people globally (56 %) have experienced pain on a weekly basis, at some point in their life

Relieving – or trying to – our aches and pains

There are a number of ways that we can try to fight pain, including taking pain relief treatment – be it a tablet, medicine or gel. Painkillers work by interrupting or changing pain signals in our body. Systemic medicines, such as paracetamol, which release an active pain-killing ingredient in to the blood system, can relieve pain by muting pain mediators in the brain and spinal cord. Topical medicines applied to the skin help to reduce inflammation from damaged tissue.

But pain can be unpredictable, outwitting our attempts to relieve it. Sometimes, our body’s clever pain mechanism can malfunction, making pain persistent, erratic or difficult to treat. “Persistent pain often serves no useful purpose at all,” said Salvador. “These are the pain signals associated with long-term conditions such as arthritis or back pain.”

When pain is neuropathic, it is tricky to decipher the source of our ache. Examples of this include phantom limb syndrome – the sensation that an amputated or missing limb is still attached – and nerve damage caused by diabetes. “In these cases, traditional methods of treatment are unlikely to relieve a sufferer’s pain,” Salvador adds.

A GSK rep talking with a pharmacist in India
GSK representative talking to a pharmacist, India

Pain relief: the next frontier

In the face of these challenges, we have a team of over 100 scientists working hard to both improve existing pain relief treatments and develop the next generation of pain medicines.

We’re also looking beyond traditional medicines, and are exploring the potential of digital technology to deliver targeted pain management. Devices can already deliver electrical pulses to help ease pain. But we’re looking at exciting advances that could enable us to pre-empt and prevent pain before it strikes.  

“The next step for us is to help patients better predict and locate their pain, so they can prevent it before it occurs,” explains Joaquim Martin, our director of new product development for systemic pain relief. “Is there a device we could create which could sense inflammatory markers in the body and locate where pain is being generated, which could predict, for example, a strong headache?”

Whatever the new frontiers of pain relief might be, Salvador stresses that we need to understand exactly how pain affects people through surveys like GPI, and continuously work to develop a whole raft of cutting edge new treatments.

“We need to treat pain from all angles,” he adds. “This means not just providing a tablet form of pain management but thinking about all of the ways we can help consumers relieve their pain symptoms.”

Brianna, migraine patient in a cafe, USA

Global Pain Index

The GPI 2017 continues to explore the impact of pain across the world, this year extending its scope across 32 countries to include both body and head pain.