An End to Sunburn Pain: Scientists Say It’s Possible

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For sun worshipers, the sting of the sunburn is sometimes the price of bronzed skin, but it doesn’t have to be that way, according to researchers.

Wolfgang Liedtke, a Duke University neurologist, and scientists from Rockefeller University and the University of California San Francisco discovered that by blocking a molecule called TRPV4, they can eliminate the chain of events that result in the pain caused by sunburn.

Most sunburns are triggered by ultraviolet B rays (UVB) that damage the skin’s outermost layer, which can result in redness and burning. In moderate amounts, exposure to UVB rays can be beneficial, launching the body’s vitamin D-making processes. But with intense exposure, UVB rays can contribute to skin cancer and accelerate skin aging as well. In their findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), Liedtke and his colleagues showed they could halt the process by which UVB rays irritate skin cells in both mice and people.

(MORE: Wearing Sunscreen Every Day Can Make You Look Younger, Longer)

UVB rays activate TRPV4 to allow calcium ions into skin cells, and lead to secretion and increased production of another molecule called endothelin, which causes pain and itching. The researchers identified this pathway after they bred mice that were missing TRPV4 in the outer layer of the skin on their hind paws, which resembles human skin. When their paws were exposed to UVB rays, the mice showed little change or pain to their skin, while normal mice with TRPV4 developed blisters and redness.

Liedtke saw similar increases in TRPV4 and endothelin in biopsy specimen of human skin, which suggests the same pathway is involved in people’s responses to UVB rays.

But most importantly, he and his team also showed that by blocking the activity of TRPV4 with a solution containing an experimental agent that inhibits TRPV4 that was applied to the hind paws of the normal mice, the mice showed little adverse reaction to the UVB exposure and were significantly less affected by pain.

The researchers are still unsure whether the process actually protects the skin from long-term UVB exposure damage–or if it simply blocks the sensation for pain. That’s important, since sunburn and the pain associated with it are signals that skin has reached its limit of sun exposure — and for people, that’s an alert to get out of the sun and into the shade.

“[TRPV4 inhibitors] will have to be used together with sunscreen because of the yet unknown issue of the long-term damage by UV rays on cell growth and on the damage it can have on DNA and the DNA structure,” says Liedtke. “We need to look into whether and how much the calcium influx through the TRPV4 channel is linked to that type of damage. It’s possible the calcium influx makes defense mechanisms stronger, or weaker. It could also be that the calcium accelerates the damage.”

(MORE: Sunburn and Indoor Tanning Still Putting Young People at Risk for Skin Cancer)

So for now, the researchers envision that TRPV4 blockers would be used in tandem with sunblock. According to the International Business Times, there are quite a few pharmaceutical companies that are already producing TRPV4 blockers:

Blocking the channel may lessen the risk of edema, or fluid leakage from the lungs, in people who have suffered heart failure, according to a 2012 paper from GlaxoSmithKline scientists published in Science Translational Medicine.TRPV4 inhibition is also a promising treatment for overactive bladder. Because the components are already identified, getting a commercial sunscreen with TRPV4 blockers to market could only take a matter of a few years, Liedtke estimates.

But even if the inhibitors don’t prove helpful in protecting against sunburn pain after exposure, they will likely work preventively Liedtke says the results highlight the role that skin may play in other pain-related reactions. “This plays into a direction that some research has taken in implicating the skin as having a more proactive role in pain symptoms — for instance, skin inflammations, in which skin cells are obvious contributors to the pain response. But there has also been research suggesting that even [in] bone fractures where the bone is close to the skin, the pain of that is modulated and enhanced by the skin cells,” says Liedtke.

There won’t be a solution to sunburn pain in time for the last sunny days of summer, but the findings could pave the way for soothing treatments in summers to come. In the meantime, the best way to treat sunburn pain is to avoid inflaming the skin in the first place — wear sunscreen and avoid the sun’s most intense UV rays, between 10am and 4pm.

20 comments
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CecilieLarsen

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ParaSalin
ParaSalin

Old school cure: Smear a heavy coating of Noxzema medicated cream all over the burn area.

Hurts like heck. 

So maybe next time you'll be more careful!

YouAreWrong
YouAreWrong

I see the ludites are out in full force. This may not be used to just treat sunburn, but other things as well. ANY insight into how the body works and does its magic is useful information. Like perhaps certain types of skin cancer is caused by some of the processes involved here, and blocking those processes prevents certain types of  skin cancer, and as a nice side effect means you don't burn either... And if there are no side effects, why would it matter if you stay out in the sun?

grollins2012
grollins2012

There is already a supplement you can buy called astaxanthin  which greatly reduces burning.

It is an antioxidant related to vitamin A, is made from algae and is the same compound that makes salmon and flamingos pink.

I have pale skin that does not tan and always used to get burned every summer.  I have taken astaxanthin for 3 years and have not burned since. Take 4mg/day. Many health food stores carry it. It is also supposed to prevent cataracts and have other benefits.

rodwick1
rodwick1

A non-story with a sensational headline that does not lend sanity to over exposure to the sun. This is a great example of poor journalism. It belongs in a tabloid paper.

GeekMommaRants
GeekMommaRants

Sunburns happen because PINKS show and wash their body oil away.  So, the secret is to bathe after you tan.   

I use baby oil and olive oil for tanning. works like a charm.  My ancestors were brought to this place a while ago, and I do not burn without fire.

furby076
furby076

Agreed with the other posters, this is a bad idea.  Pain is the defense mechanism to tell you to stop what you are doing. There are people in this world who do not feel any kind of pain (rare disorder) - these people run into problems where they don't know if they got injured. My brother had this (to a limited form as a teenager). He got cut on a car engine chain (not sure what specific part). He had no idea he had a deep gash and was bleeding until my dad noticed.  My brother was taken to the hospital to get over 100 stitches...no pain at all.

While having a sunburn sucks, the pain is a reminder that you f'd up. Also, it should also tells you while you are in the ACT of g etting burnt. The only way I would support this is if it were a prescribed medication given after you got burnt. If it was O/C then people would just apply it before going to get a tan (harder to do if it's prescription based).

john7517
john7517

Do what I do. Put white Vinegar on the sunburn. Was taught that by a friend in 1983. Works great! But-you cannot wait a day or two to do it.

Deez
Deez

Simply blocking the pain is going to cause more damage. The pain is there for a reason; to tell the idi0t up stairs that something is wrong.

KevinW
KevinW

BAD idea. Sunburns SHOULD hurt as motivation to 1d10ts to not do it again

UleNotknow
UleNotknow

Bad idea. You could burn to a crisp and not even know it.

"The researchers are still unsure whether the process actually protects the skin from long-term UVB exposure damage–or if it simply blocks the sensation for pain." Well, yeah that would be important all right. If the process only blocks pain your risk of skin cancer would go off the charts with any increased exposure.

AndrewK777
AndrewK777

There's already prevention for sunburn pain. Use sunblock and don't get burned in the first place.

OnemoreFakefbpage
OnemoreFakefbpage

@AndrewKamadulski - I live in Phoenix. I can get sunburn in 10 minutes, on a walk to the store, or making a cell phone call outside or any of a 1,001 other bits of normal life.


Q. Do you know the SPF rating of your clothes ? I have to be concerned about that. Anything that helps me, is fine by me.

lisagd22
lisagd22

@AndrewKamadulski What about those people who use sunblock but burn anyway? I get sunburned through my clothing and with sunblock, so it's not as simple as saying "Just don't get sunburned."