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Is chronic jaw pain genetic?

Some patients really do feel pain more keenly than others and their sensitivity-or lack of it-can probably be traced to their genes, according to a study published in the January 2005 issue of Human Molecular Genetics.

Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill studying pain perception and predisposition to chronic temporomandibular joint pain have discovered a genetic explanation for why individuals feel pain differently and why some are more prone to chronic pain conditions.

A person's level of the enzyme catecholamine-O-methytransferase, or COMT-the enzyme that controls levels of adrenaline, noadrenalin and dopamine-is an indicator of how sensitive he or she is to painful stimulation, they theorize. Humans' genetic variants of COMT fall into one of three variations that give them either high, average or low pain sensitivity.

Researchers from variety of disciplines, including medicine, dentistry, physiology, epidemiology, molecular biology and genetics, studied 202 healthy, pain-free women ages 18-34 for up to three years. All participants provided a blood sample for genotyping and had regular pressure and thermal pain perception assessments and head and neck examinations.

Study results showed that those with lower levels of COMT were more sensitive to pain and more likely to develop temporomandibular joint disorder. Researchers theorize that individuals with low levels of COMT may also be at greater risk for developing other chronic pain conditions like fibromyalgia, irritable bowl syndrome and other chronic sensory disorders. They also note that testing for genetic variants can help tailor treatments for patients with chronic pain.

Please contact the ADA if you have questions about this article.

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