The pain was too intense to ignore. Sixteen years later, Tony Cirrincione still remembers it. He was on a weekend ski trip, and he staggered into the ski lodge, leaving his wife in charge of their son and the five other Cub Scouts they’d brought along. Wincing at the dull ache in his back, he tried to stretch away what had to be a muscle cramp. But the bursts of pain grew only more intense, erupting at more frequent intervals. Soon he was in the passenger seat of their Nissan minivan, the Cub Scouts in back, as his wife raced them to the emergency room at NorthShore University HealthSystem in Chicago. Kidney stones, the nurse declared the moment she saw him doubled over the triage station. Minutes later, he lay on a gurney in the ER, waiting for the prescription opioid Dilaudid (hydromorphone) to take hold. But it never did.
As many as 10 percent of people do not receive pain relief from opioids. That’s a staggering statistic in a country where more than 75 million people live with chronic pain. Many individuals, like Cirrincione, who don’t respond to certain prescription pain relievers have no idea why. But a type of genetic testing is bringing answers to a growing number of them.