Opioids Could Make Chronic Pain Worse: What This Means for Weighing Addiction Risks
Doctors worldwide readily dole out opioid painkiller prescriptions as a cure for post-op and chronic pain – largely contributing to today’s opioid epidemic. But as it turns out, these meds could actually be prolonging patients’ pain. Let’s find out why.
Opioids Prolong Pain by Affecting the Brain’s Glial CellsDuring the study, test subjects who received morphine experienced postoperative pain three weeks longer than those who received no painkiller. This is attributed to the brain’s glial cells, which control your inflammatory response. When they receive what researchers call a one-two hit – the first being surgery; the second being morphine – they produce an exaggerated response, because they’re primed for the second one. Says senior author on the study, Prof. Linda Watkins, “With that second hit, the primed glial cells respond faster, stronger, and longer than before, creating a much more enduring state of inflammation and sometimes local tissue damage.” In short, not only do opioid prescriptions involve a highly dangerous addiction risk; they’re actually worsening the problem they’re intended to solve.
How Opioid Prescriptions Lead to AddictionFor centuries, opioids have been prescribed to patients after surgery or for chronic pain because they contain chemical properties that help relax the body and relieve the effects of pain. While typically used to treat more moderate to extreme cases of pain, it’s not entirely uncommon for opioids to be prescribed for minor ailments like coughing or diarrhoea. Among the most common prescription opioids are: hydrocodone, morphine, codeine and fentanyl. Whether they offer a long-term solution to pain or not, opioids present a much more serious risk to the millions of people every year who are prescribed them: addiction. Today, opioids are the leading cause of drug-related fatalities in the United States, accounting for more than 20,000 deaths every year. The relaxation and temporary pain relief offered by opiates generally occur as a result of the dopamine and endorphins triggered by the drug. Dopamine is often referred to as the ‘feel-good’ chemical because it elicits a sense of euphoria and affects both mood and memory. Only two main areas of the brain produce dopamine, and opioids act by shutting of the neurons that control its production. Users experience feeling of happiness and pleasure as a result of the flood of dopamine produced by opioids, which is what makes them so extremely addictive. Because your brain adapts to the new, higher levels of dopamine, you’ll need to take more of the drug in order to create the same sensations of pleasure or relaxation. The same is true for the way opioids are used to manage pain. The same dosage taken over a prolonged period of time will feel less and less effective to the person consuming it.
The Dangers of Opioid DependencyDespite being used by medical practitioners to treat symptoms of pain, opioids present both short- and long-term health risks. While they may offer temporary relief from the pain or anxiety you experience, those positive feelings are ultimately short-lived and lead to serious mental and physical concerns. Here are just a few of the most common effects of opioid misuse that you might experience over time:
- A weakened immune system
- Nausea or vomiting
- Reduced breathing rate (which causes fatal overdose)
- Drowsiness or ‘nodding off’
- Extreme anxiety
- Muscle pain