Pain of any type — whether acute or chronic — is the most frequent reason for physician consultation in the United States, prompting half of all Americans to seek medical care annually. Although separate conditions, pain and inflammation are nearly always associated with each other.

Despite the prevalence of these conditions, the primary options available for their treatment have changed surprisingly little in recent years. Steroids, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and opiates are still the mainstay treatments, although all have their drawbacks.

And then there is the itch component. When the brain gets pain signals, it responds by producing the neurotransmitter serotonin to help control that pain. But as serotonin spreads from the brain into the spinal cord, the chemical often gets lost or sidetracked, moving from pain-sensing neurons to nerve cells that influence itch intensity.

In a study with mice published in May, an antibody that simultaneously blocks the sensations of pain and itching was found. The new antibody works by targeting the voltage-sensitive sodium channels in the cell membrane of neurons. Researchers hope that this finding will garner interest from pharmaceutical companies to help expand studies into valuable clinical trials.

In the meantime, a recent study of pain reception led by scientists from The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) found a simple method to convert human skin cells into the specialized neurons that detect pain, itch, touch and other bodily sensations. The neural pain receptions that were created responded to both the kind of intense stimuli triggered by a physical injury that causes acute pain, and the more subtle stimuli triggered by inflammation that results in pain tenderness.

The fact that the neurons responded to both the gross and fine forms of stimulation that produce distinct pains in humans provides confirmation that the neurons are functioning as naturally developed neurons would. The discovery allows this broad class of human neurons and their sensory mechanisms to be studied relatively easily in the laboratory.

The search for new analgesics and anti-inflammatory agents is currently the subject of intense drug company interest. Researchers hope that these induced sensory neurons will help to identify new compounds that block pain and itch. This will help better understand and treat neurodegenerative disease and spinal cord injuries as well as to advance the understanding of different types of pain.