Bite into a hot pepper, and you'll feel the burn. But then, your tongue will go numb. It is that numbing process that scientists are studying in an effort to reduce post-surgery pain. Scientists have found that the chemical that makes chile peppers so hot (capsaicin) can actually relieve the pain of surgery. Capsaicin is being dripped into open wounds during knee replacements and other highly painful operations.

Bathing surgically exposed nerves in a high enough dose of capsaicin numbs them for weeks, so patients have less pain and require fewer painkilling drugs after surgery. Researchers at Harvard University and the National Institutes of Health, and pain specialists in Denmark, have been researching capsaicin in combination with other anesthetics for cancer patients, dental injections, and epidurals used during childbirth.

Anesiva, a California company, has produced purified capsaicin called Adlea, which is dripped into cut muscle and tissue. The surgeon waits five minutes and then stitches up the wound. The capsaicin is a one-time dose that works inside the wound, rather than body-wide, and reduces the need for morphine and other narcotic painkillers. The numbness lasts for weeks.

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