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Toward a Mechanism-Based Approach to Pain Diagnosis

      Highlights

      • Chronic pain can be classified on anatomical, pathological and mechanistic bases.
      • Pain includes nociceptive, inflammatory, neuropathic and central hypersensitivity states.
      • The multiple mechanisms driving pain involve different drug targets.
      • Identifying pain mechanisms enables rational individualized treatment choices.
      • Precision pain medicine is possible through a pain diagnostic ladder.

      Abstract

      The past few decades have witnessed a huge leap forward in our understanding of the mechanistic underpinnings of pain, in normal states where it helps protect from injury, and also in pathological states where pain evolves from a symptom reflecting tissue injury to become the disease itself. However, despite these scientific advances, chronic pain remains extremely challenging to manage clinically. Although the number of potential treatment targets has grown substantially and a strong case has been made for a mechanism-based and individualized approach to pain therapy, arguably clinicians are not much more advanced now than 20 years ago, in their capacity to either diagnose or effectively treat their patients. The gulf between pain research and pain management is as wide as ever. We are still currently unable to apply an evidence-based approach to chronic pain management that reflects mechanistic understanding, and instead, clinical practice remains an empirical and often unsatisfactory journey for patients, whose individual response to treatment cannot be predicted. In this article we take a common and difficult to treat pain condition, chronic low back pain, and use its presentation in clinical practice as a framework to highlight what is known about pathophysiological pain mechanisms and how we could potentially detect these to drive rational treatment choice. We discuss how present methods of assessment and management still fall well short, however, of any mechanism-based or precision medicine approach. Nevertheless, substantial improvements in chronic pain management could be possible if a more strategic and coordinated approach were to evolve, one designed to identify the specific mechanisms driving the presenting pain phenotype. We present an analysis of such an approach, highlighting the major problems in identifying mechanisms in patients, and develop a framework for a pain diagnostic ladder that may prove useful in the future, consisting of successive identification of 3 steps: pain state, pain mechanism, and molecular target. Such an approach could serve as the foundation for a new era of individualized/precision pain medicine. The Analgesic, Anesthetic, and Addiction Clinical Trial Translations, Innovations, Opportunities, and Networks (ACTTION)-American Pain Society (APS) Pain Taxonomy (AAPT) includes pain mechanisms as 1 of the 5 dimensions that need to be considered when making a diagnostic classification. The diagnostic ladder proposed in this article is consistent with and an extension of the AAPT.

      Perspective

      We discuss how identifying the specific mechanisms that operate in the nervous system to produce chronic pain in individual patients could provide the basis for a targeted and rational precision medicine approach to controlling pain, using chronic low back pain as our example.

      Key words

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