Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Is Blocking Sunburn Pain a Good Thing?

Yesterday, my colleague Elliot showed me an article in the local paper with the following headline:

“Cure for the sunburn blues?  It may be coming: scientists have uncovered the molecule that makes sunburn hurt.”

Something just didn’t seem right with this headline.  From a pain management point of view, this was great news.  My mother suffered from Lupus (one of the most obscure diseases) and she was in a lot of pain during the last years of her life.  Any advance in pain management is good news…but in this case, something didn’t quite feel right.

The article goes on to state that the TRPV4 molecule reacts to UVB rays and allows calcium and a protein associated with pain and itching to pass through the cell walls and cause the discomfort.  The scientists performed studies on mouse paws (who knew mouse paws were similar to our skin)…they took away the TRPV4 molecule and discovered the mice felt no pain from an imposed sunburn.  “They were a lot less sensitive and their skin tissue was significantly less damaged.”

Hmmm…that last statement barely snuck in, and disappeared almost as fast.  Let’s read it again. 

“…and their skin tissue was significantly less damaged.”

Okay, so this seems like a good thing…skin is less damaged.  But the article never goes on to explain what damage was actually less.  Was it less sunburn…did removing the TRPV4 molecule act as a pseudo sun block?  Was there still damage to the melanocytes?  Was there an increase or decrease in the potential for skin cancer?  It’s not clear.

What is clear is that the pain associated with sunburn can be reduced.  But is this really a good thing?  My first thought was echoed in the article by dermatologist Dr. Margaret Boyle.  She said that a sunburn is nature’s way of telling is to get out of the sun.  “Sunburn pain acts as a warning system.  We need that trigger to help keep us safe.”

I couldn’t agree more.  I still get the occasional burnt spot because I missed it when applying sunscreen and I suffer some pain because of it.  Yes, I’d like immediate relief.  But I’m not sure it’s smart to incorporate TRPV4 blockers into sunscreen so that sun exposure doesn’t come with a little pain. 

We already rely too much on sunscreen to protect us from the sun.  We should be savvier in wearing hats and protective clothing and in seeking shade during peak sun hours.  We should seek shade as much as possible.  We don’t need a sunscreen that removes nature’s way of letting us know we’ve been in the sun too much.

Let’s hope there’s more to this study than that.

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