The opioid trouble we looked at last time sets a dramatic stage for new research published last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). – research that raises the question of whether these drugs are even worth it.
Considering that opioids are most commonly prescribed for pain management, it’s a valid question.
Clearly, pain is a conversation between you and your body, a conversation that we’d rather not have. For pain is a harbinger of bad news. Pain warns us when something is wrong. That something wrong can be acute, such as an injury or infection, or it can be chronic, like back pain, arthritis, or pain associated with dental conditions such as TMD, trigeminal neuralgia, or heavy metals toxicity from dental materials.
Since we’re electrical beings, all body functions are controlled by your electrical system. Your spinal cord is the motherboard. Your body starts talking pain when it senses electrical or molecular messages, delivered via nerve cells, to your spinal cord. This communication can be like a hot poker that fires up production of chemicals in spinal cord neurons whose sole purpose is to ensure you get the message.
Unlike acute pain, chronic pain doesn’t have an obvious end point. To help manage it, opioids are often prescribed. These drugs are designed to dampen the pain messaging by imitating the effects of natural chemicals your body makes to neutralize pain.
For the PNAS study, researchers studied morphine treatment in rats with nerve injuries against a control group of rats that underwent sham surgery. Ten days after the surgery, rats were treated with either morphine or saline over a period of five. Those in the morphine group stayed sensitive longer and to a higher degree. Even light touches caused them to withdraw their paws from the stimulus more often than those in the control group.
Experiments showed that the morphine-induced sensitivity wasn’t mediated through opioid receptors.
The nerve injured rats on morphine were in pain longer because morphine activates inflammation-inducing molecules called cytokines. Cytokines are regulated by a molecular complex called the inflammasome. Rats whose sensitivity increased, showed increased expression of inflammasomes within the central nervous system.
As Dr. Peter Grace noted,
We are showing for the first time that even a brief exposure to opioids can have long-term negative effects on pain. We found the treatment was contributing to the problem.
Fortunately, there are effective, drug-free options for pain relief. Many find electrotherapy units and mind-body approaches helpful for managing chronic pain – in conjunction with pharmaceutical therapies or on their own. Potentially beneficial therapies include
- Therapeutic massage.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
- Tai chi.
- Electrical nerve stimulation.
In addition, a personal commitment to healthy daily habits can decrease inflammation and provide pain relief, too. Basic self-care includes getting exercise as you’re physically able; making sure you get a good night’s sleep; limiting caffeine, alcohol, and sugary foods and beverages; avoiding tobacco; and keeping your weight in check.
Pain can be isolating, so try to regularly schedule time with friends or family, engage in a hobby, get out in nature – anything that gets you up and out of the house. More than just pain management, empowering yourself and committing to active engagement enables you to reclaim your life.