Chronic Pain and Opioids -- Not the Answer?

Overdose drug addict hand, drugs narcotic syringe on floor


We've been hearing a lot lately about the dangers of opioid use. What starts out as an innocent way to treat pain can turn into a many-headed hydra that destroys lives. And today comes word of an ironic twist. That medicine that was supposed to take away a patient's chronic pain may actually make it worse.

A study out of the University of Colorado in Boulder says the number of opioid medications doled out every year would be enough to give one bottle of pills to every single American adult. It's big business. Drugs like codeine, morphine, fentanyl and oxycodone work by binding to proteins in the body, reducing pain perception.


When I got my wisdom teeth I prescribed an opioid for pain. I remember looking at the clock, counting the minutes as the first dose wore off before it was time to take the second. But what a relief when the time finally came! And years later, after major abdominal surgery I was hooked up to a morphine pump that made the time in the hospital mostly pain free. These drugs can seem like a miracle.


But back to that study. It seems to indicate that within a relatively short time, the opioid pain reliever starts having the opposite effect, making pain worse. The study was conducted with morphine in rats. The rats were experiencing nerve pain. One group recieved morphine, the other did not. After just five days, the team found that the chronic pain in the morphine group got worse. They explain in their article, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, that the injury along with the morphine triggered the body to release a "cascade" of cells that led to overactivity of nerve cells. In other words, pain increased. And that change can last a long time.


The researchers also found that this problem can be reversed with drugs that stop the effect, but those drugs are only now being developed. That offers hope to the 100 million Americans who live with chronic pain, but researchers say this should be a warning to those who take the drugs with little thought to side effects or consequences. This may be especially true for those who take them recreationally. Used incorrectly, they could set you up for a lifetime of pain that has no remedy.