The summer’s already drawing to a close, and fall will be upon us in no time. This month at Holistic Pain, we tried to showcase how medicine is evolving to provide better care for people with pain.

Researchers are gaining a deeper understanding of established diseases.

Inflammatory bowel disease is an inflammatory condition in which the body mistakenly attacks healthy bowels. Around 1.6 million people in the United States have inflammatory bowel disease, with about one in ten of these people under the age of 18.

Current research suggests that both genetics and the gut microbiome (bacteria that live in the gut) influence a person’s risk of developing this disease. Healthy bacteria in the gut help to keep people healthy, but if the ecology of the gut microbiome changes too much, it can lead to illness. However, new research has shown that it might be possible to use this to our advantage, as we noted in the post “Inflammatory Bowel Disease: Who It Affects And Why:”

“By transplanting the microbiome of a healthy person into the gut of a person with inflammatory bowel disease, it may be possible to reshape the gut microbiome as a treatment for bowel disease.”

Also, researchers have finally managed to clearly outline the different types of gluten-related disorders. Celiac disease has been recognized for some time. In this disease, consuming food that contains gluten triggers an autoimmune response, and the body attacks its own intestines. Wheat allergies, too, have been recognized for quite a while, since a wheat allergy produces an allergic response the same way that a peanut or shellfish allergy does.

Non-celiac gluten sensitivity, however, was something of a grey area. Until fairly recently, non-celiac gluten sensitivity wasn’t recognized as a condition. Now, however, there are clearly-defined parameters for this disorder, although it can still be difficult to diagnose.

We also examined changes happening in the medical community.

Many of these changes are attributable to Dr. Atul Gawande. In his earlier books, Dr. Atul Gawande showed surgeons for what they truly are: highly intelligent, but still fallible, people. Now Dr. Gawande is focusing on ways to make surgery safer. His book The Checklist Manifesto, for instance, suggests that just as professionals like airplane pilots use safety checklists, so too should surgeons utilize checklists to reduce the risk of complications.

Dr. Gawande is also bringing attention to the high cost of health care, which is largely due to overtesting and overdiagnosis. Too many tests, done unnecessarily, can lead to people finding issues they didn’t know they had and that probably would have gone unnoticed for their entire lives. This in turn can lead to treatment (or even surgery) to correct things that could have been left alone, like benign growths. He also argues that end of life care should be more about quality of life, rather than simply staving off the end of life for as long as possible.

Somewhat related to Dr. Gawande’s encouragement to reduce health care costs and overtesting, we showed you some of the most fascinating new work in medical testing. When combined with smartphones, especially, medical testing can become much more accessible, mobile, and affordable. We introduced you to devices that can be attached to a smartphone and perform blood screening in just 15 minutes. At just $34, these devices are very affordable. Poor communities and third world countries, in particular, could benefit from such affordable means of medical testing.

Also impressive are the organs-on-a-chip being developed. These small, flash-drive-sized devices contain the smallest possible functional unit that represents a human organ. When fully developed, the organs-on-a-chip could remove the need for animal and human testing of drugs. They could even provide a way to develop targeted therapies for diseased organs.

Other changes in medicine are about reexamining existing therapies and finding ways to utilize them.

Placebos have been used for a long time to test the potential effects of new drugs. Now, though, many researchers are looking at placebos themselves as a potential treatment.

The placebo effect is proven (when inert treatments produce real results), and placebos can even produce positive results in people for whom other treatments have failed. Researchers are now trying to figure out why placebos can achieve such results, as we noted in the post “Are Placebos The New Miracle Drug?”:

“Therefore, the placebo effect is tied to the signals and rituals that the nonconscious mind associates with specific results. Medications are associated with alleviation of symptoms, so taking a pill – even a placebo – can ease symptoms. Even symbols like a medical diploma on the wall, the writing on a bottle of prescription medication, or an interaction with a physician may produce a placebo effect.”

If this sounds a little bit mind-over-matter, consider self-affirmation. Self-affirmation is simply the act of saying, writing, or thinking positive things about yourself. It’s easy, quick, and can be done anywhere at any time, yet self-affirmation works well enough to produce measurable results.

People who practice self-affirmation are more open to following health advice or making positive life changes, like getting more exercise. Performing self-affirmation before a stressful task, like taking a test, can reduce the effects of stress and help people do better on the task. Self-affirmation can even provide a drug-free way to help manage chronic pain. It may not work well enough to make painkillers unnecessary, but it can certainly help.

We also took a look at the many ways exercise can improve your life. The medical community has known for a long time that exercise is good for us, but new evidence is constantly being discovered. Regular exercise can do everything from helping you quit smoking to reducing your risk of cancer to keeping your brain healthier as you age.

In the post “Wasabi And Spice: 7 Painkiller Breakthroughs So Far This Year,” we examined several recent breakthroughs in pain research. As exciting and promising as many of these breakthroughs are, a surprising number involve newly-discovered information about established knowledge.

For example, we’ve known for a long time that capsaicin (the compound that makes peppers taste hot) can provide pain relief, but researchers are just now developing technology that allows them to examine capsaicin receptors at a molecular level, and they may soon be able to develop highly targeted drug therapies for pain because of this. Thanks to the deeper understanding of how pain works that will come from all these breakthroughs, there could be a slew of new pain treatment options over the next several years.

Also, just because we love them, we shared some special dog-related events with you.

The first week of August was International Assistance Dog Week, so we put together some information about why assistance dogs are so impressive. For instance, we highlighted the different types of assistance dogs, including:

  • Seeing-eye dogs
  • Mobility dogs
  • Hearing dogs
  • Seizure dogs
  • Medical alert dogs
  • Mental health dogs
  • Autism dogs

And for those of you who have regular, run-of-the-mill, won’t-even-come-when-called dogs, we shared some information about the benefits of all dogs – not just assistance dogs – for National Dog Day, along with lots of ideas to spoil your pooch.

What was your favorite post at Holistic Pain this month?

Image by Parvin via Flickr


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