Medical Electronics: Perfecting a Pain Detector

Nothing is as thorny for healthcare providers as being confronted with a patient who is clearly hurting but does not know the exact source of the pain or how to describe its intensity, making detection, diagnosis, evaluation, and treatment extremely difficult. Researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine are working on a solution that may prove beneficial to the health services industry and boost sales at OEMs serving the sector.

The researchers are examining the possibility of developing a diagnostic tool that uses functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and support vector machines (SVMs) to more accurately determine both the source and level of pains without any input from the patient. Such a tool will improve diagnosis and accelerate treatment by physicians.

Here's how the researchers explained the challenge as well as the potential opportunity for a pain diagnostic tool in a report in PLosOne, a journal of peer-reviewed science:

    Individuals with major cognitive or communicative impairments, such as intensive care unit patients or older adults with dementia, may not be able to provide valid self-reports of pain. For those individuals, there are few methods for determining the presence or absence of pain. While behavioral tools exist (such as those assessing facial expressions, vocalizations, and body movements), they too may fail individuals with paralyses or other disorders affecting motor behavior. There is, therefore, a need to develop a pain assessment tool that is based on physiology, and requires no communication on the part of patients.

The “Eureka” moment isn't here yet, but the researchers are getting some promising results and are already fielding questions about the potential for such a device from medical offices, hospitals, and patients. In addition to benefiting the direct users, the pain diagnostic tool would also create sales opportunities for OEMs as well as semiconductor and magnetic material manufacturing companies.

In a series of experiments, the Stanford University researchers demonstrated high pain detection accuracy (up to 80 percent) and concluded that “fMRI with SVM learning can assess pain without requiring any communication from the person being tested.” They, however, suggested additional tasks for researchers to undertake before their findings can be used in clinical settings.

A successful replication of their experiments could be beneficial, not only to patients, but also to medical equipment manufacturers. Pain is a common problem that everyone may want to get rid off, but the unfortunate truth is that localizing the source of the problem to ensure effective diagnosis is often difficult. Researchers understand that most times people, when asked by physicians, cannot pin down the source of their pain, hence the focus on developing a tool that can take the guesswork out of the situation.

23 comments on “Medical Electronics: Perfecting a Pain Detector

  1. Jay_Bond
    October 7, 2011

    This is a very interesting study with some true curiositys. I think having these mobile electronics will help out the medical staff extremely well. What I'm curious about is how they actually measure the pain. Individuals pain thresholds are enough to drive a medical staff crazy, but what part of the technology says this is a certain number on their 1-10 scale?


  2. Adeniji Kayode
    October 7, 2011

    This is really interesting, and what a solution this will really bring in medical world.

    But my thinking seems alongside with Jay-Bond- how accurate could this really be in a situation whereby even the patient can not tell how he is feeling.

  3. JADEN
    October 7, 2011

    This is a life saving research, it's going to help physician and save their time from guesswork.  The diagnosis will be more easier and direct.

  4. saranyatil
    October 7, 2011

    Sensible research. This device need not 100% accurate if it can atleast detect the pain of 99% patients still it relives so much of pain.

    This device can help many paediatrician to identify problems in small infants as they cant describe the pain. I wish this device to be launched soon and interested to know its performance.

  5. Ariella
    October 7, 2011

    That technology could potentially benefit a great many people whose pain is not adequately treated. I wonder if it could also be adapted for use in treating animals.

  6. Adeniji Kayode
    October 7, 2011

    @saranyati.I really admired the angle from which you viewed the pain detector.

    Truly, this is going to be of  a great  help in the world of infants that are having one pain or the other but telling us is a problem.But what are the conditions that would aid the sensitivity of this device and will it be sensitive enough to detect anything in infants

  7. saranyatil
    October 7, 2011


    Sensitivity definitely becomes a question here. Initially the device can start with simple stomach related pains caused because of food poisining and can include any thing to do with respiratory sytem.

  8. saranyatil
    October 7, 2011


    As you said it can be extended and used to help the veterinarians in diagnosis.

    Animals are one amoung the carriers of flu, hence its essential if these can help in some way.

  9. mfbertozzi
    October 8, 2011

    Well Ariella, your post is bringing to me a crucial trigger, I really believe it has been discussed a lot: how high are investment in medical technologies vs military technologies? Which is for human people the most proficient in providing benefits across for people everywhere across the globe?

  10. Anand
    October 8, 2011

    This device can help many paediatrician to identify problems in small infants as they cant describe the pain.

    @saranyatil, you are absolutely right. This device will help paediatrician to identify problems in small infants who cannot express their pain.  I think this good news for infants parents too who cant understand the pain the infants are in when they are crying.

  11. Anand
    October 8, 2011

    There is, therefore, a need to develop a pain assessment tool that is based on physiology, and requires no communication on the part of patients.

    @Kunmi, thanks for the interesting post. Just curious to how exactly they are measuring pain ? How do you define pain in physiology terms ? Can these devices also be used on Animal pain detection ?

  12. Wale Bakare
    October 8, 2011

    Medical electronics require mundane research works. Especially aspect relating to  diagnosing and threatments, those two must undergo series of testing processes both hardware and software. This is to ensure system's reliability and validity as well as risk management.

    I think project/research of this nature might take a while for commercialisation, as well goverment role germane to its deployment in medical centers to ensure high degree of safety in locating pain accurately. This is necessary to avoid a case like Therac 25.

    Therac 25 Incident Overview, It Occured Between The Year 1985 and 1987

    • Therac 25 was an electronic medical device – Radiation Therapy Machine
    • It failed during medical treatment for cancer patients 
    • Six patients received radiation overdoses during cancer treatment by a faulty medical linear accelerator – patients died of radiation poisoning as a result of overdoses.
    • Overdoses occured as a result of software defect “error”.
    • The case since then lead to advancements in systems safety
    • This swiftly prompted pro-active approach from the regulatory agency (FDA) in finding causes and remediating the accidents.
  13. Ariella
    October 8, 2011

    That is an important point, Wale. One does not want to be a casualty of the error in a trial and error period for new medical treatments.

  14. _hm
    October 8, 2011

    There are two types of research fields – abstract and applied research. This may be more of abstract reserach and not applied research. May be they find some novel as biproduct of these research.


  15. t.alex
    October 8, 2011

    It has to be extremely accurate. Or else it may affect all the diagnoses.

  16. Daniel
    October 10, 2011

    “Diagnostic tool that uses functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and support vector machines (SVMs) to more accurately determine both the source and level of pains without any input from the patient”

    Kunmi, idea is very good but accuracy and credibility about the info is very important in healthcare treatment. The whole treatment depends up on this input and hope it may be revolutionary technology in health care system.

  17. William K.
    October 11, 2011

    If such a syste can accurately function it could be a revolutionary improvement in modern medicine. anandvy  , I had suggested a similar functionality for use with infants, to a  friend doing research, back in 1972.  I wonder if it took this long to reach any viability.

  18. Kunmi
    October 11, 2011

    @Jacob. The attempt to develop this electronic medical device could end up in a serious breakthrough for electronic manufacturers and in the healthcare arena. I strongly believe that accuracy and effectiveness of this tool will be carefully measured before it could reach the market. It may end up as a prayer being answered for the people undergoing chronic pains across the world.

  19. Kunmi
    October 11, 2011

    @ Rich:Thank you very much. I think this effort should not be brushed aside by the electronic manufacturers because it could be a potential business opportunity.

  20. Kunmi
    October 11, 2011

    @_hm. I agree with you that research could be Abstact or applied. I will rather think that this research tends towards applied research because it appeared as a systematic approach to practical application of the intended purpose rather than just a short summary of a particular research. There is no reasearch that does not emanate from an idea until it is tested and generally accepted before the researchers could get the total credit.

  21. Kunmi
    October 11, 2011

    I really want to thank you all for your contributions on this important topic. Pain has never being a friendly feeling. Having a tool that can detect it will foster easy diagnosis. In turn,  it will be money to the manufacturers and health to the people.

  22. t.alex
    October 16, 2011

    It would be great if it can reach end consumers. Medical devices is still very niche market where the end customers are doctors or hospitals.

  23. wolflarsen
    March 21, 2019

    If you are a student that has no time to do your homework by oneself, there is a beautiful service, writing a lab report. I had been using it all the time being student

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