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New Study Shows Opioid Painkillers Cause Chronic Neuropathic Pain; Offers Hope for New Treatments
Opioid painkillers actually cause more pain than the pain they’re supposed to be treating. And it can be long term and very severe, says a new study from the University of Colorado.
The fact that opioids cause pain has been known for decades. But the phenomenon called “opioid-induced hyperalgesia” has been associated with longer term use of opioids.
What’s new and remarkable about this study is learning that opioids actually cause nerve pain after taking them for as little as five days. And even more remarkable, this opioid-induced nerve pain can be chronic, lasting for weeks or even months – long after stopping the use of the painkillers.
But on the flip side, the researchers say they’ve found a way to prevent the opioids from causing chronic nerve pain, while still allowing the painkillers to treat the original pain as intended.
The study, published in the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,” was carried out on lab rats. But we hasten to point out that this was a major study involving scientists at the University of Colorado, joined by over a dozen researchers from hospitals and universities in North Carolina, Australia and across China, as well as the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse and National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
The study points out that pain caused by damage to the nervous system is almost always treated with opioids. But there has been little exploration of the long-term consequences, especially at the cellular level.
Peter Grace, a CU assistant research professor and study author, said the findings have “far-reaching implications for humans. Our key finding is that we were able to demonstrate that a brief treatment with a pain killer, like morphine, doubled the duration of neuropathic pain.”
What is neuropathic pain?
It helps to understand what is meant by “neuropathic pain” (neuropathic means any disease or damage to the nervous system). Whether caused by disease, accident or surgery, neuropathic pain is “a complex, chronic pain state that usually is accompanied by tissue injury,” according to WebMD. “The nerve fibers themselves may be damaged, dysfunctional, or injured. These damaged nerve fibers send incorrect signals to other pain centers. The impact of nerve fiber injury includes a change in nerve function both at the site of injury and areas around the injury.”
What this study shows is that opioids contribute to “persistent neuropathic pain via sustained spinal neuroinﬂammation.” In simpler language, opioids inflame special immune cells in the spine that respond to pain, called glial cells. They are first called into action when the original impact, injury or illness is experienced. But then they are inflamed a second time by the presence of the opioids. This second immune response is the new discovery, and is what leads to long-term neuropathic pain.
Bad for pain patients, but there’s a possible upside
For many pain patients, opioids are a no-win situation, but it’s all they’ve got to make life somewhat livable with chronic, crippling pain.
But as time passes, the original pain can seem to get worse, or at least it’s no better. So patients reach for more opioids. And we all know where that can lead: Dependence, addiction, overdose and death.
And this is happening everywhere prescription opioids are in use.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse says prescription opioid overdoses took the lives of over 20,000 Americans in 2015, up nearly 400 percent from 2001, when it was less than 6,000. We can safely say that many of those deaths stemmed directly from the widespread lack of understanding about treating pain with opioids.
Light at the end of the tunnel
On the up side, the study says, researchers found ways to block specific opioid receptors on glial cells. This could allow for some pain relief while potentially preventing the chronic opioid-caused pain. So patients in dire need of pain relief could take opioids and get relief.
Of course, opioids will still be opioids, with all the dangers of dependence and overdose. Hopefully, findings such as these will encourage even more research into alternate treatments for pain that don’t risk dependence and overdose.
Until then, Novus is here helping people get their lives back from substance use and abuse. If you or someone you care about has a problem of any kind with prescription painkillers, call Novus right away. We’re always here to help.
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