Research focuses on ways to deal with chronic pain
Dr. Natalie Morellini is the University of Notre Dame Australia’s first post-doctoral fellow in pain medicine. She is researching complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS) under the direction of the Churack Chair, Professor Eric Visser. Dr. Morellini is working with Professors Peter Drummond and Philip Finch from Murdoch University.
Dr. Morellini’s research focuses on people with severe injuries who may suffer CRPS, which is most commonly found in the feet and hands, and the underlying cause of this is unknown. To understand what causes this pain, Dr. Morellini is looking at how the sympathetic nervous system and specific pain receptors (molecules which receive and respond to different chemical signals) act in certain patients.
Chronic pain affects 1 in 5 Australians and can severely impact quality of life. CRPS is a condition that affects the upper and lower limbs and occurs after an injury such as a fracture. In more severe cases, individuals may have a long-term disability.
As we do not understand the cause of CRPS well, there is no simple cure and no single recommended treatment. Our research aims to understand chronic pain so that we can find potential treatments.
One of the possible causes behind CRPS is the dysfunction of the sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is the ‘housekeeper’ of the body and controls many involuntary actions such as sweat production and blood flow. In our previous research, we have shown that overexpression of certain types of receptors of the sympathetic nervous system amplify pain. Our aim is to boost this research by the use of complementary approaches.
Firstly, we will look at tissue samples taken from areas of the body experiencing chronic pain, in 90 CRPS patients from Australia and Europe. These samples will show us other receptors of the sympathetic nervous system, as well as immune cells and nerve fibres of the skin.
Secondly, we will culture skin cells obtained from CRPS patients to clarify the role of the pain receptors, in terms of inflammatory processes which may contribute to chronic pain.
And thirdly, we will determine if people who don’t experience chronic pain undergo similar processes. We hypothesise that pain receptors may aggravate inflammation, contributing to acute and chronic pain.
With therapeutic treatments, we are hopeful that we may be able to reduce pain and improve outcomes in people who suffer from CRPS and other types of chronic pain.
Southern Plus offers a number of services that can assist with pain relief and management including, but not limited to, in-home health and wellness and exercise physiology at our Health & Wellness centre.