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Should you blame your great-grandmother for the pain you feel after being injured in a North Carolina car crash?

Maybe, according to scientists from the University of North Carolina. Their conclusions, presented at the annual meeting of the American Society of Anesthesiologists, are based on studying nearly 1,000 car accident victims. Each person was asked to evaluate his or her pain levels immediately after a traffic accident and again after six weeks had passed.

Senior study author Dr. Samuel McLean, an assistant professor of anesthesiology at UNC, reports that variations in the severity of the pain experienced do not precisely track the amount of physical trauma the victims experienced. The researchers’ conclusion is that there is a genetic component to the depth and persistence of pain.

Dr. McLean told reporters, “The findings are important because currently patients who experience persistent pain, who don’t have things you can see that are obviously damaged, are often viewed with lots of suspicion and they don’t get the treatment they need. This shows a biologic basis for the development of these symptoms.”

The researchers base their results on two complementary studies. One of these looked at how the neurotransmitter dopamine exerts a role in pain events. The second study focused on the hypothalamic-pituitary adrenal axis, a hormone system that controls the body’s response to stress. In each case, the scientists located specific genetic variations that altered the pain experience either immediately after an injury or over time.

These studies may ultimately alter treatment strategies for car crash victims. Currently, the standard response is to concentrate care on the specific injury sites detected by observation or nuclear imaging. But the UNC research, if it is confirmed by follow-up investigations, may challenge that approach. The study suggests that tissue damage and obvious trauma don’t tell the whole story, and perhaps whole-body response to an accident needs greater consideration.

The researchers caution that their study results must be considered preliminary. Papers presented at a professional conference are not peer-reviewed, and sometimes results cannot be replicated in later studies.

Although the researchers said nothing about the implications of their findings on North Carolina personal injury lawsuits, the attorneys at Speaks Law Firm have definite opinions on the subject. If these conclusions are confirmed, they could have a profound effect on how damage awards for pain and suffering are calculated. Pain awards would no longer necessarily be proportional to the severity of the trauma. The defendant’s lawyer would be free to argue that damages should be lower than usual for a particular accident victim because her genetic profile indicates less sensitivity to pain.

Scientific advances continue to pose new challenges for attorneys. No matter what hurdles are set before us, our legal team will surmount them to give our clients the maximum compensation available for their cases.