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Do Prescription Painkillers Prolong Chronic Pain?

Do Prescription Painkillers Prolong Chronic Pain?

Author: Shernide Delva 

Could prescription pain killers actually prolong chronic pain? New research may further explain why prescription painkiller addiction has swept the country in the last decade and a half. Painkillers are meant to alleviate pain, but a new study reveals that even short term opioid use increased chronic pain in rats.

“We are showing for the first time that even a brief exposure to opioids can have long-term negative effects on pain,” said CU-Boulder assistant research professor Peter Grace. “We found the treatment was contributing to the problem.”

With opioid addiction becoming a national epidemic, researchers from the University of Colorado- Boulder are trying to understand why these medications have become such a major problem for so many people. Painkillers are supposed to help with pain, not make it worse.

Researchers found that just five days of morphine treatment “doubled the duration” of chronic pain in the rats. While these results have not been proven in humans, it could explain why so many people get hooked on prescription opioid drugs. The results could mean that while these drugs may temporarily numb pain on a surface level, it elongates pain in the body, creating more dependence on the drugs.

If opioids do in fact have similar effects on humans, it would mean that these prescription opioid worsen the very problem they’re intended to treat.

Forbes broke down the science behind the study’s findings. The spinal cord has immune cells called glia cells that typically function by killing off microorganisms that cause infection. When the body is in pain, the glia cells go in high alert. However, researchers found that opioid use sent repeated signals to the glial cells, causing a “glial cascade.” The glial cascade triggered increased activity of nerve cells in the spinal cord in brain. As a result, there was more chronic pain that lasted several months.

This is not the first time opioids have been linked to contributing pain. In 2013, CU-Boulder researchers found that morphine prolonged pain after major surgery. These findings are important because opioid dependence can set in after a brief period of taking these medications.

“The implications for people taking opioids like morphine, oxycodone and methadone are great, since we show the short-term decision to take such opioids can have devastating consequences of making pain worse and longer lasting,” said CU-Boulder professor Linda Watkins, commenting on the more recent study. “This is a very ugly side to opioids that had not been recognized before.”

 Prescription opioids have been misunderstood medically for quite some time. When drugs like OxyContin entered the market, they were promoted as non-addictive safe pain medications. Many people began using them believing that they had no potential for addiction. Now, we know so much more.

On December 12, 1995, the FDA approved the opioid analgesic OxyContin.  In just the first year, OxyContin accounted for $45 million in sales for its manufacture. By 2000, that number would explore to $1.1 billion! That is an increase of over 2,000 percent in just four years. Ten years later, the profits would inflate to $3.1 billion. By that point, OxyContin accounted for about 30 percent of the pain killer market.

It was believed the delayed response of OxyContin would lower the potential for an addictive drug. The drug was actually created for that exact purpose. It was promoted as being “a non-addictive, semi-synthetic substitute for heroin, morphine and opium.”  Since OxyContin is an extended release medication, it is designed to release small amounts of oxycodone for up to 12 hours. This extended-release effect makes it ideal for chronic pain situations. The patient can take one tablet and experience pain relief for a longer period of time.

Soon, it was discovered that drugs like OxyContin were just as addictive as drugs like morphine. Even more concerning was the labeling of the product which indicated that “crushing OxyContin would cause the full impact of the drug to be felt at once.” Unfortunately, many people abused this practice and became dependent on the drugs.

Clearly, what we knew about opioid painkillers when they came out a few decades ago is vastly different than what we know today. It is so important to be informed. With better knowledge, we can move forward in combating this addiction and reducing the amount of lives that have been destroyed due to addiction.  If you are struggling, know that this is a complex issue and you should not blame yourself. You are not alone. Call today.

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