Opioids Might Be Worsening Chronic Pain

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A new study published by Professor Peter Grace of the University of Boulder in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences aimed to examine the long-term effects of their usage. Grace and his fellow researchers set out to question not just the efficacy of opioids – but whether or not they worsen chronic pain rather than ease it.

It’s no secret that the amount of Americans taking prescription opioids is reaching dangerous levels. They’re one of the most common painkillers in the U.S. and according to the CDC nearly 250 million prescriptions were written in 2013 alone. That’s roughly one bottle of pills per American adult.

Typically opioids such as codeine, oxycodone, morphine, and fentanyl are used to combat neuropathic pain by blocking pain receptors. Many previous studies have shown their effectiveness in reducing chronic pain, however, according to Grace there had been little exploration into how their usage may affect a person over an extended period of time. When you factor in the increasing number of opioid-related deaths – which according to the American Medical Association is 78 per day – this new research is long overdue.

For the study, Grace and his team used two groups of rats suffering with chronic nerve pain. One were administered morphine, the other were not. The results show that the chronic pain experienced by the group given morphine worsened, and continued for several months afterwards. This is a breakthrough, particularly in regards to those who take morphine immediately after sustaining a nerve injury. “We are showing for the first time that even a brief exposure to opioids can have long-term negative effects on pain,” says Prof. Grace. “We found the treatment was contributing to the problem.”

The American Medical Association strongly advises against the usage of opioids when tackling chronic pain. Its task force dedicated to stopping opioid use believes that physicians are responsible for helping to “reverse” this epidemic.

With recent research at a Minneapolis hospital wherein ER patients were given acupuncture instead of opioids – and responded successfully to the treatment – there is a way to reduce chronic pain without resorting to these dangerous medications. The AMA has yet to include acupuncture in its list of recommended alternatives.

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