Montreal's senior monthly since 1986

Feb '10

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Montreal pain researcher honoured in the U.S. for his achievements

A Montreal scientist who broadened the understanding of how we experience pain, along with the ways it can be controlled and relieved, has been honoured for the second time in less than year for his lifetime’s work.

In December, Ronald Melzack, psychology professor emeritus at McGill University, was chosen for the 2010 University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for Psychology.

Last spring, Melzack was inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame in recognition of his pioneering research into pain mechanisms and pain control over the past 50 years.

Melzack’s principal claim, which was first proposed in a groundbreaking scientific paper in 1965 written with neuro-physiologist Patrick Wall, is that people feel pain not at the point of injury, but instead in their brain through a pathway that travels through the spine. His “gate control” theory of pain suggested that people can change or control their suffering by using emotional and personal processes to block, increase or decrease the feeling of pain.

"You feel damn good when [the pain] stops and you know you're getting better." Ronald Melzack Photo: Martin C. Barry

Building on the theory, he concluded that pain is subjective and multidimensional because several parts of the brain contribute to it at the same time.

He also examined the “phantom limb” pain often experienced by amputees and found that the neural network we are born with generates our perception of body, self, and experience. Melzack’s studies have led to innovative treatments for people who feel chronic, incessant pain.

Patients now taught to manage pain by redirecting their focus through such techniques as meditation and distraction.

“All the chronic pains interest me and had an impact on my thinking,” he told The Senior Times. “Pain is generated in the brain, and not only by physical inputs. Obviously when we burn our hands or when we break our leg, those are sensory inputs and pain is a reasonable thing to feel. But when you have terrible pain repeatedly over years and you can’t find anything wrong, then along comes the idea that it is generated in the brain.”

While “No pain, no gain” is an expression to denote working out while ignoring physical pain and suffering, Melzack’s view is that pain has no inherent value beyond its potential to alert the sufferer of disease or injury.

“I think the only thing we gain from pain is if it’s due to an obvious physiological cause like an infection or something is broken, and then you feel damn good when it stops and you know you’re getting better.”

Melzack began teaching psychology at McGill in 1963, after teaching at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1959 and at the University of London since 1957.

While at McGill, he co-founded and was research director of what is now the McGill-Montreal General Hospital Pain Centre and was a consulting specialist in that hospital’s neurosurgery division.

At the Royal Victoria Hospital, he co-founded the Pain Control Clinic and was an associate member of its anesthesiology department and a medical scientist for its psychiatry department.

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