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What Happens When Acute Pain Becomes Chronic Pain?

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Written by Adam Zewe

Nearly 50 years after beginning his scientific career, Ronald Dubner, DDS, PhD, professor in the Department of Neural and Pain Sciences, continues to be a leader in the field of pain research. Dr. Dubner is currently working on a National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded project to study the underlying mechanisms that are involved when acute pain transitions to chronic pain.

His research has shown that when acute pain becomes chronic pain, changes take place in the central nervous system. The five-year project, which is funded through 2016, seeks to develop a deeper understanding of those central nervous system changes and discover ways to manage those processes. "Pain is a multi-dimensional experience. These dimensions of pain involve a number of different components of the nervous system. The study of pain can lead to a greater understanding of the brain," Dubner says.

For Dubner, pain research has been the central focus of his distinguished career. When he began working at the NIH in the 1960s, the field of pain research was practically nonexistent. Dubner's studies of pain mechanisms and the nervous system helped lay the groundwork for the field of pain research. He established the first interdisciplinary pain research team at the NIH in the early 1970s, which was a forerunner of the field of translational pain research. Over the past 40 years, Dubner has authored more than 300 publications in the field of pain science and has received more than 46 awards and recognitions, including the Distinguished Scientist of the Year award in 2011 from the American Association of Dental Research.

Since joining the School of Dentistry 18 years ago, Dubner has continued to be a pioneer in the field. His recent studies regarding the interaction between the immune and nervous systems explore key questions at the forefront of pain science. He has also collaborated with his colleagues in the Department of Neural and Pain Sciences on the multi-center study Orofacial Pain: Prospective Evaluation and Risk Assessment (OPPERA). The study that seeks to identify potential risk factors that contribute to chronic pain in patients suffering from temporomandibular disorders (TMD).

Though he has researched pain for half a century, Dubner still finds the field exciting. He has embraced new advancements in research, like intricate brain imaging techniques, molecular approaches to pain and genetics. Scientists have made huge breakthroughs since Dubner's career began, but he says there is still a lot of work to be done. "The main methods that we use to control pain today are often inadequate and are approaches that have been available for decades, like aspirin and morphine-like drugs. We need to take advantage of the research knowledge that we have gained to develop new approaches to manage pain, particularly persistent, chronic pain," Dubner states.


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