A top pain expert is attempting a pre-emptive strike against pain by enlisting a common food ingredient — soy.
Scientists already know soy is a key player in reducing pain in rats, said Yoram Shir, head of the McGill University Health Centre pain clinic — who pioneered rodent studies in universities in Israel and the United States before coming to McGill.
Shir discovered the analgesic effects were even more dramatic when rats got a soy-rich diet prior to nerve injury.
It seemed like the soy was protecting them from developing pain.
"Study results were so robust that I didn't believe it," he said. "So I repeated the study and the results were even better."
After spending a decade trying to find the active anti-pain ingredient in soy, Shir switched tracks.
It was time to upend the current model of pain management, he said, in which traditional opiate and morphine therapy is applied after the patient complains of constant pain and tries to find medical help.
"It's hopeless because once established, chronic pain is a cureless disease, to some extent," Shir said. "I've treated hundreds of patients . . . so the idea of trying to prevent chronic pain from developing is where we should invest our money now."
Statistics from the 13th World Congress on Pain held recently in Montreal suggest that one in five people suffer pain that lingers beyond three months and many are severely disabled by it.
Links between diet and health issues such as cancer, cardiovascular disease and depression are well established, Shir says, and there's similar link between diet and pain.
But before encouraging folks to load up on soy milk and tofu, Shir's team at the Alan Edwards Pain Management Unit has launched a large-scale, double-blind study in humans to replicate the rat findings.
The team will spend three years looking at the benefits of soy in preventing chronic pain in women following breast cancer surgery.
Half the participants in the study will receive soy protein and half will get milk protein supplements.
Participants will be asked to substitute 40 to 50 grams of their usual protein with soy (or the placebo) daily for two weeks prior to surgery and will get the help of a nutritionist for meal plans.
Researchers expect to find a diet of soy will decrease the number of women with post-surgery chronic pain by 50 per cent compared to the control group getting a milk supplement.