Revolutionary new blood test looks at the ‘colour of pain’ to identify chronic pain in babies and dementia patients

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One in five people in Australia suffer chronic pain. For medical professionals it can often be hard to identify exactly how much pain a patient is in, especially if they aren’t able to clearly communicate it. But in a world-first breakthrough this challenge could be a thing of the past with a test that can now identify the extent of pain, using the colour of biomarkers in the blood.

The new on-the-spot blood test will be able to notify health professionals of a patient’s pain severity within minutes.

University of Adelaide’s Professor Mark Hutchinson, the neuroscientist who developed the test with an Australian-based team, said they found that persistent chronic pain has a different natural colour in immune cells than cases where there isn’t persistent pain.

“We are literally quantifying the colour of pain,” he explained. “We will be able to take a simple blood sample, and within minutes we are able to determine if someone has persistent pain.”

Prof. Hutchinson said the new tool, called the painHS test, not only allows for greater certainty of diagnosis but can also guide better drug treatment options. “This gives us a brand new window into patients’ pain,” he said.

Prof. Hutchinson said that the test would also benefit the diagnosis of pain in people with dementia, babies and severely disabled patients who were once forced to suffer in silence, unable to communicate the extent or source of their pain.

The test uses light measurement tools (hyperspectral imaging analysis) to identify the molecular structures of what pain looks like in blood cells. But Hutchinson stressed that the test could never replace the importance of having patients describe and discuss their pain.

“Self-reporting is still going to be key but what this does mean is that those ‘forgotten people’ who are unable to communicate their pain conditions, such as babies or people with dementia, can now have their condition diagnosed and treated,” he said.

Hutchinson added that the test will not only have a profound impact on human health but also has the potential to revolutionise the treatment of animals. “Animals can’t tell us if they’re in pain but here we have a Dr Doolittle-type test that enables us to ‘talk’ to the animals so we can find out if they are experiencing pain and then we can help them.”

It’s hoped the painHS test will be available for use by the broader medical community, including GPs in the next 18 months.