We truly live in an age of wonders. And that means that it could soon be a more wonderful world for people suffering from chronic pain conditions like TMJ. That’s because researchers have been able to take a picture of the atomic structure of the receptor that accepts pain signals. Now that they know what it looks like, they may be able to design more customized medications that attach better to this receptor with fewer side effects.

The Pain Trip

Scientists commonly refer to this receptor as the “wasabi receptor” because it responds to both internal pain signals and environmental irritants ranging from wasabi to tear gas. It’s call TRPA1, or “trip A1.” It’s a protein in the cell membrane (like the skin) of nerve cells.

TRPA1 responds especially to pain signals related to inflammation and tissue damage, both of which are common causes of jaw pain in TMJ.

TRPA1 is like a lock that keeps the pores on the cell closed. When a molecule signalling pain fits into the lock, it can open these pores, which triggers a pain signal. Pain medication can work by fitting into the lock, plugging it to other molecules can’t come and open the lock.

A Close Look at Tiny Structures

It’s hard to get a look at structures as tiny as this receptor. You can’t use light because light particles are too big. It would be like trying to take a picture of someone’s face using beach balls. In addition to the fact that your subject would get annoyed, you wouldn’t be able to identify any of the features of the face because the beach balls are too big–they bounce off without touching most of the details.

To get a look at the tiny features of the TRPA1 receptor, researchers used a technique called electron cryo-microscopy (cryo-EM). In this technique, proteins are bombarded with electrons at very low temperatures. It can achieve a resolution about one millionth the thickness of a human hair.

Seeing the Goal Leads to Better Design

Without knowing exactly what the receptor looked like, designing pain medications to block this channel was a shot in the dark. Scientists tried to make molecules similar to ones that they knew worked, and hoped they worked, too. Sometimes they did, and sometimes they didn’t. Sometimes they worked better, and sometimes they worked less well.

But now that researchers can see the structure of this receptor, they can design drugs specifically to fit it. In fact, one of their images captured an anti-inflammatory drug in action. They could see that the receptor has a small cleft in it, a little valley, and that one class of drugs works by fitting into that valley.

Now that they know the essential feature of that class of drugs, researchers will be able to design drugs that have that feature, but lack structures that lead to dangerous drug side effects.

Avoid Drug Side Effects by Avoiding Drugs

Although we can look forward to the future development of new medications that will reduce the risk of side effects, if you currently want to avoid drug side effects, you will need a drug-free treatment. We offer drug-free treatment for jaw pain and other symptoms caused by TMJ.

If you are looking for TMJ relief in Columbia, SC, please call (803) 781-9090 for an appointment with a TMJ dentist at Smile Columbia Dentistry.