WASHINGTON – Devil’s Revenge. Spontaneous Combustion.
Hot sauces have names like that for a reason. Now scientists are testing if the stuff that makes the sauces so savage can tame the pain of surgery.
Doctors are dripping the chemical that gives chili peppers their fire directly into wounds during knee replacement and a few other highly painful operations.
Don’t try this at home: These experiments use an ultra-purified version of capsaicin to avoid infection – and the volunteers are under anesthesia so they don’t scream at the initial burn.
The hope is that bathing surgically exposed nerves in a high enough dose will numb them for weeks, so that patients suffer less pain and require fewer narcotic painkillers as they heal.
“We wanted to exploit this numbness,” said Dr. Eske Aasvang, a pain specialist in Denmark who is testing the substance.
Chili peppers have been part of folk remedy for centuries, and heat-inducing capsaicin creams are a staple for aching muscles.
But today the spice is hot because of research showing capsaicin targets key pain-sensing cells in a unique way. California-based Anesiva Inc.’s operating-room experiments aren’t the only attempt to harness that burn for more focused pain relief.
Harvard University researchers are mixing capsaicin with another anesthetic in hopes of developing epidurals that wouldn’t confine women to bed during childbirth, or dental injections that don’t numb the whole mouth. And at the National Institutes of Health, scientists hope early next year to begin testing in advanced cancer patients a capsaicin cousin that is 1,000 times more potent to see if it can zap their intractable pain.
Among early results: In a test of 41 men undergoing open hernia repair, capsaicin recipients reported significantly less pain in the first three days after surgery, Aasvang reported this month at a meeting of the American Society of Anesthesiologists.