Tag Archives: chronic pain

Lights, camera, action

We’ve got some great objects on display in our new exhibition – spiders, an Xbox, an anaesthesia machine, and more. These help to bring the stories we’re telling in Pain Less to life.

But pain is personal, and that has driven how we are presenting the stories in our exhibition. The objects we’ve found give a tangible link to our stories, but we want to introduce our visitors to the people behind them.

So we tore ourselves away from our desks, hopped on trains, planes and auto-mobiles, and headed off around the country to film interviews with the scientists and people whose tales we’re telling in Pain Less.

These films make up a key part of the exhibition, and you might have noticed over the last few weeks they have been appearing on the blog, but in case you missed them here they are… Enjoy!

Pain in the brain

Pain killers

Painfully unaware

Virtually painless


Uncovering the personal experience of pain

Hello, I’m Nicola and I’m one of the team working on Pain Less.

One of the things I’ve been doing is working with people from outside of the Museum. This group of adults who live with pain will give a different view on our content.

Over eight sessions they provided us with an insightful and personal perspective on our new exhibition. This significantly shaped our approach to the exhibition and the outcome of these creative workshops are on display as part of Pain Less.

So where did we start?

To start things off, we brought together several top researchers to give short talks about pain, anaesthesia and consciousness to our participants. This gave everyone the chance to find out more and talk directly to the researchers about the science behind the exhibition.

The first few sessions focused on getting to grips with the ever-changing content. With the help of our great facilitator, Lucinda Jarrett, it soon became clear that out of the three topics, pain really stood out as the most interesting and relevant to the group – in particular how pain is a very personal experience. This might seem obvious, but it was learning about the experiences of people living with chronic pain that really brought this home for us. It became an important part of the look and feel of the exhibition, which you’ll hopefully see really clearly when you come and visit.

In the sessions we explored the link between the brain and body when we feel pain – how did the group’s experiences compare with the findings of our researchers? Which research stories could they relate to?

We also needed to think about how was this going to appear within the exhibition. An open offer to do anything you want for an exhibition can be daunting… so we provided a few suggestions that we also knew we could support the group with.

After some consideration the group chose to make a film. This would explore a story or stories from the exhibition. The idea was to think about the scientific research and provide personal reflection on what the studies mean to people who live with pain every day.

The creative process

Before we could get the cameras rolling we needed a better idea of what this film was going to be, and how it would reflect the research covered in Pain Less. We recruited artists and film-makers Deborah Padfield and Helen Omand to work with the group in a series of workshops, and help shape their creative responses into a film.

The different members of the group had their own perspectives on the stories being told in the exhibition and their own ways of expressing this. They all chose some objects from the exhibition – and some that they brought themselves – and used them to create visual metaphors for what they wanted to express.

For one participant the idea of losing consciousness under anaesthesia wasn’t scary but actually a welcome relief from pain – so the anaesthesia machine was particularly interesting. Another person was fascinated by the research into using tarantula venom to relieve pain – we didn’t have the real thing at the time and so had to make do with a fake spider instead!

Once the visual metaphors had been photographed it was time to start filming. Deborah and Helen filmed the metaphors along with members of the group discussing the objects they had chosen, and the research stories told in the exhibition.

These discussions explored several perspectives on the content from the members of the group, such as the link between the brain and body, and the nerves which transmit pain, how pain can affect our mood and emotions, and how pain is a constant experience, but one that changes for various reasons. Another common theme was the individual ways in which everyone experienced pain and found their own ways to cope with it. Many participants also expressed hope that improved scientific understanding and medicine would lead to better pain relief in future.

Once the individual sequences of film were made the group got together with Deborah and Helen to watch the scenes and think about how they might link them together.

The group started off with a creative exercise using water, ink, string and sand to paint pictures that might represent links. In previous discussions, the idea of representing the link between nerves and the brain with threads, hairs and wires had come up a few times, so we looked at different ways of using this in the film. Poetry, reflections and shared thoughts from the sessions were also useful.

When the group reassembled for their final meeting, they viewed a rough-cut of the film, talked about a few edits and after some careful consideration chose a title:

Fragmented Lines: revisualising pain

All I can say now is a huge thank you to all the members of the group who dedicated their time to the sessions. The film is now installed in the exhibition and can be viewed in its own reflective space. Personally, I’ve found it inspiring to be able to meet such interesting people and I greatly appreciate the personal perspective they have given to the exhibition.

Fragmented lines: re-visualising pain.

A film co-created in workshops by adults living with pain

Ann Eastman
Sheherezade Hill
Cornelia Hörl
Patricia Macdonald
Neelan Thanabalasingam

With Deborah Padfield and Helen Omand

Facilitated by Lucinda Jarrett

In collaboration with the Science Museum

Virtually painless

Pain helps you minimise damage to your body by warning you when you’re hurt. Acute pain is caused by injuries, illnesses or surgery and tells your brain that something is wrong. Chronic pain, on the other hand, persists long after the cause has gone and your body should have healed. Every year the NHS spends £5 billion to treat chronic back pain alone.

Why is chronic pain so difficult to deal with?

If you take strong medication for a long time, it can become less effective and may cause unpleasant side effects, such as nausea or drowsiness.

Like any other chronic illness, chronic pain persists for a long time. It can be hard to find a cure and patients can endure a lifetime of suffering. Even though the pain seems to come from the body, ultimately it’s the brain that interprets the sensation of pain.

So how does your brain relate to your body when you feel pain?

Just like sight and touch, pain is part of your sensory system. Your senses provide you with vital information about the world around you. If you get your skin stuck in a zip, you’re able to react immediately.

A sensory map in your brain quickly tells you where the pain is. During your lifetime this map grows and changes in relation to your movements, sensations and even your injuries.

Can learning how the brain changes in relation to lasting pain lead to more effective relief?

For the first time, researchers at Northwestern University in Chicago have seen a change in grey matter in chronic pain patients. Scientists hope to understand the mechanisms that cause this change and use the knowledge to develop new therapies for chronic pain.

One particular type of chronic pain has already helped researchers understand more about how the brain changes in relation to serious injury – phantom limb pain.

If you suffer a serious injury such as an amputation, your brain’s sensory map no longer matches what you see or do. This happens because every adult brain has neuroplasticity – the potential to remould. About 60–80% of amputees develop pain in their missing limb. Sometimes the sensations can be as simple and strange as the feeling of a hand brushing their cheek. Other times it is persistent and hard to treat. Using mirrors or more complex virtual-reality games can help some people.

Scientists think the reason why virtual-reality games can reduce chronic pain is because of the adult brain’s ability to change. But could we use these treatments more effectively in future?

‘Our research has shown that virtual reality can reduce pain for hours, but we know little of its long-term effectiveness,’ says Jonathan Cole, a consultant in clinical neurophysiology at Poole Hospital and Bournemouth University. ‘What we really want to do is teach people to do this as soon as they lose their limb. The longer you wait, the more time the brain has had to grow the wrong connections and reinforce the pain.’

‘Because the adult brain is dynamic and changes throughout our life, it’s certainly possible that in future virtual-reality techniques could be extended to treating other common pain problems, such as certain types of back pain. However, virtual reality doesn’t always work for everyone,’ says Ilan Lieberman, a pain consultant at Spire Manchester Hospital.

So is there an overarching solution to chronic pain?

‘Over the past 50 years, people have been looking for a one-size-fits-all treatment for chronic pain,’ says Vania Apkarian, a leading chronic pain researcher at Northwestern University. Vania thinks treatments in the future will be tailored to the individual.

‘With today’s advances in brain imaging, we can see that the brain of every chronic pain patient is structurally and psychologically different. We found that there are different forms of chronic pain, each with their unique brain imprint. You can’t expect to treat them all in the same way.’

In an ideal future, doctors would be able to use medical scans to look into the brain of a patient and see exactly where things have gone wrong.

This level of insight is what Vania’s research team are trying to achieve.

‘We’re entering into unknown territories, testing drugs that may reveal brain areas involved in chronic back pain. I can’t disclose more for now, but if successful, it will provide evidence that understanding brain mechanisms of chronic pain can lead to targeted therapies.’

Pain Less participation

Hi, I’m Kayte. I work as the Audience Advocate for Pain Less. My role is to understand and promote the needs of our diverse audiences, so that the exhibition is engaging and relevant to our visitors.

You may have found out from previous posts that we’re working closely with two groups of non-museum people and you might be wondering why. So I thought I’d hop on the blogging bandwagon and try to explain…

From the very beginning we knew that the Pain Less project would involve working closely with the public in new and more inclusive ways.


We wanted to bring some alternative and unique perspectives to Pain Less. These would not only complement what we learned through research and talking to experts, but also influence what stories and topics we would explore.

However this was never simply about improving content – in this age of information-sharing and social media, people expect to participate, not just interact, to collaborate not consume. Visitors want to engage with us more deeply than by only wandering around a gallery or watching a demonstration, and the Science Museum is finding ways to make this happen.

We decided to work closely with a few specific groups of people. These groups were intended not only to represent our potential visitors, but to offer interesting and unique insights into the topic of pain.

So enter our two participatory groups: Year 9 students from Langley Academy, and a group of adult chronic pain sufferers. We engaged with both from the outset, to ensure that their involvement is not simply to interpret or comment on our perspective, but rather to inform it, to shape it and to work with us to create Pain Less.

The benefits to the project were noticed immediately – the participants brought previously untapped perspectives to the table, made us think in new ways about our content, and as a result our expertise in dialogue with visitors has vastly improved.

What happened?

Pain quickly stood out amongst the trio of anaesthesia, consciousness and pain as the most engaging and intriguing topic for both groups, and this guided the team in their thinking about the main focus of the exhibition. Our participant groups were fascinated by the relationship between the body and the mind when it feels pain, the effect your mood can have on your levels of pain, and the very personal nature of pain.

Making it relevant

The Langley group are also keen that their input is represented in a way that’s going to appeal to other young people. They have helped us develop an interactive game you can play in the exhibition or online. This approach, they said, is how they and their friends like to encounter new ideas and information. And who wouldn’t? It will be exciting, dynamic and competitive – the perfect formula for an interactive exhibit.

Our adult group’s input is more personal. Using objects, photography and film-making the group are creating an artistic response to the exhibition’s content and main themes. Their response will offer visitors a unique perspective on the exhibition, from those who live with profound and continuous pain.