To Assistant Professor Ellen Terry, PhD, pain tells a story. For African Americans in particular, she believes the scars of history may be reflected through how this population experiences chronic pain.
According to Terry, decades of structural racism and discrimination have disproportionately impacted African Americans. This prejudice has weighed especially hard on older African American adults, and may increase their likelihood of developing chronic pain or worsen its severity.
“Evidence suggests that discrimination and structural racism may increase the likelihood of developing chronic pain and worsen chronic pain outcomes,” Terry said. “Exactly why this seems to be the case is uncertain, but we hope to improve our understanding of exactly how racism and discrimination can impact marginalized populations with chronic pain.”
Through a five-year, $3.7 million grant from the National Institute on Aging, Terry will specifically look at how this phenomenon relates to older African Africans. She and her team hypothesize that structural racism in the form of segregation and socioeconomic disadvantages, as well as direct discrimination, will play a key role in impacting chronic pain outcomes.
Her research group plans to measure residential segregation, the physical separation of two or more groups in a community, and socioeconomic disadvantages present in specific neighborhoods to identify structural racism. In addition, the team will record experiences where African American older adults reported experiencing discrimination to observe how their environment may impact chronic pain.
Individual and community resilience will also be measured in the face of chronic pain and inequity. As stress caused by racism and discrimination may impact older African Americans on a psychological or neurobiological level, Terry hopes to discover new ways to improve pain resilience. She believes this work could create new research opportunities and contribute to the knowledge-base of researchers seeking to create culturally relevant interventions in order to provide much-needed relief.
“There is an urgent need to develop treatments to reduce pain in older African Americans,” Terry said. “As a marginalized population who tend to be underrepresented in research studies and often have less access to effective pain therapies, this work is particularly important, and may also help us move one step closer to true health equity.”
Research reported in this publication was supported by the National Institute on Aging of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number R01AG081479. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health