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Measuring Pain

Indian American teenager Mahum Siddiqi and her team have developed a device to reliably measure the pain experienced by patients.

It may not be something we often think about, but one of the biggest barriers to effective medical treatment and care is that doctors do not have a reliable way to measure how much pain a patient is actually experiencing. This has enormous implications not only in terms of patient comfort and treatment, but within diagnostic protocols themselves: levels of pain can rule in or out certain diagnoses. A reliable and consistent measure of pain levels is, thus, vital to effective care.

Mahum Siddiqi, an Indian American teenager, along with her team, has designed a device to detect the actual pain level of a patient during a diagnosis. The device uses neurological activity occurring in the patient’s brain to help doctors determine pain levels. Siddiqi and her team recently won the inaugural Digital Transformation Hackathon at Cornell University, New York, for designing the device.

“Being the only non-graduate student participating in the hackathon was definitely intimidating at first,” explains Siddiqi. “I had just gotten my driver’s license a few months ago. It was amusing to see the reactions on all the judges’ and mentors’ faces when I told them I was only in high school.”

But, as Siddiqi continues, “the age difference added a type of diversity to my group and our different ways of thinking got us to first place.”

So, how does the device actually work? “The device is an EEG [electroencephalogram] headset that uses electrical neurological activity to detect the levels of pain a patient is experiencing,” explains Siddiqi. This has important implications because without an objective measure, it would be exceedingly difficult for a doctor to gauge the actual level of pain a patient may be experiencing. “The overall purpose is to have a device that makes pain diagnostics objective rather than subjective, so that there can be a universal process for how doctors prescribe pain medication, if they decide necessary,” she adds.

Another key benefit of having a way to objectively measure pain is to “help patients who have idiopathic pain,” says Siddiqi. “And, it will also be a part of stopping the abuse of prescription opioids.”

The process of developing the device was a mix of ingenuity and serendipity. “One of my teammates had suggested we take a look at a device that would aid those with epilepsy,” says Siddiqi, “and I suggested we try to create something that could help someone with idiopathic pain. It hit me suddenly that why don’t we create a universal pain-detecting device that could be used on anyone, for any reason they may be experiencing physical pain.”

This idea led to the creation of the innovative device, and to her group’s great success at the hackathon.

Now, Siddiqi finds herself moving forward onto new challenges and opportunities. “I’m still undergoing the incredibly stressful college admissions process,” she notes. “I plan to study either psychology or neuroscience and, hopefully, go to medical school to become a neurologist.”

Siddiqi considers her cross-cultural perspective instrumental in the development process of the device. “My yearly trips to India definitely impacted the drive I had to create a solid description of our prospective prototype,” she explains. Siddiqi understands that even cultural relativity plays a role in making pain truly measurable. Furthermore, using her device in India could certainly “make the lives of the less fortunate better,” she notes.

Trevor Laurence Jockims teaches writing, literature and contemporary culture at New York University.