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August 18, 2005

ADA honors Dworkin for pain research

For more than three decades, Dr. Samuel F. Dworkin, who recently won the American Dental Association’s Norton M. Ross Award for Excellence in Clinical Research, has made pain his daily life.

He has focused his pioneering research on the relationship of acute and chronic pain to both patients’ physical symptoms and to the stresses and events in their lives and how their emotions and behavior affect pain.

Dworkin is professor emeritus of oral medicine in the School of Dentistry and professor emeritus of psychiatry and behavioral sciences in the School of Medicine. He graduated from New York University College of Dentistry in 1958 and practiced general dentistry in Manhattan for 16 years.

He then completed a Ph.D. in clinical psychology at NYU through a special fellowship from the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research.

“After I earned my Ph.D., I decided to get into research and education as a way to give back,” Dworkin says. His work expanded from acute pain to chronic orofacial pain, and includes extensive research in treating temporomandibular disorders and chronic pain. He spearheaded the development of the Research Diagnostic Criteria for Temporomandibular Disorders, which has become the standard classification system worldwide

Thirty years ago, he says, health care providers viewed chronic pain almost exclusively from a biological standpoint, looking for physical pathologies behind the pain. But research like his has brought the medical and dental communities to “awareness that chronic pain is best understood by looking not just at the physical signs of pathology but also at psychosocial and behavioral issues of individual patients.”

Dworkin says an important step in treating chronic pain is teaching patients coping skills.

“The state of the person is a better predictor for debilitating chronic pain than their physical status,” he adds. “Even if physical status doesn’t change, there is reason for optimism because a person can be guided to behavior changes that give more power to manage chronic pain.”

Dworkin’s many awards include the Giddon Award for the best paper in behavioral science research in dentistry from the International Association for Dental Research and the Distinguished Scientist Award from the ADA. Dworkin joined the UW faculty in 1974.