Twin studies of pain


  • None of the authors have conflicts of interest relating to the contents of this manuscript.

Corresponding author: Christopher Sivert Nielsen, Norwegian Institute of Public Health, Division of Mental Health, Box 4404 Nydalen, 0403 Oslo, Norway.

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Twin studies provide a method for estimating the heritability of phenotypes and for examining genetic and environmental relationships between phenotypes. We conducted a systematic review of twin studies of pain, including both clinical and experimental pain phenotypes. Fifty-six papers were included, whereof 52 addressed clinical phenotypes. Of the most comprehensively studied phenotypes, available data indicates heritability around 50% for migraine, tension-type headache and chronic widespread pain, around 35% for back and neck pain, and around 25% for irritable bowel syndrome. However, differences in phenotype definitions make these results somewhat uncertain. All clinical studies relied on dichotomous outcomes and none used pain intensity as continuous phenotype. This is a major weakness of the reviewed studies and gives reason to question their validity with respect to pain mechanisms. Experimental pain studies indicate large differences in heritability across pain modalities. Whereas there is evidence for substantial common genetic risk across many clinical pain conditions, different experimental pain phenotypes appear to be associated with different genetic factors. Recommendations for future research include inclusion of pain intensity scaling and number of pain sites in phenotyping. Furthermore, studies examining the genetic relationships between pain phenotypes, in particular between clinical and experimental phenotypes, should be prioritized.