Do Prescription Painkillers Prolong Chronic Pain?

By May Wilkerson 06/02/16

“This is a very ugly side to opioids that had not been recognized before.”

Do Prescription Painkillers Elongate Chronic Pain?

New research may help explain why the epidemic of prescription painkiller addiction has swept the country in the last decade and a half. Painkillers, as its name suggests, are meant to alleviate pain. But a new study from the University of Colorado Boulder found that even short-term opioid use actually 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.”

The researchers reported that just five days of morphine treatment "doubled the duration" of chronic pain in the rats. While this has not yet been proven in humans, it could help explain why so many people get hooked on prescription opioid drugs like OxyContin. It would mean that while the drugs are able to numb pain on a surface level, it prolongs pain in the body, creating a longer and more intense need for the drugs.

If opioid drugs have this same effect on people, it would mean that these highly-addictive pills actually exacerbate the very problem they're intended to treat.

Forbes breaks down the science behind the study's findings. The immune cells in the spinal cord, called glial cells, typically function by killing off microorganisms that cause infection. When the body is in pain, the glial cells go into high alert. While observing how morphine affected the rats, the research team found that the opioid sent repeated signals to the glial cells, causing a "glial cascade." This triggered increased activity of nerve cells in the spinal cord and brain, resulting in more severe chronic pain that lasted several months.

This isn’t the first study to suggest that opioids may contribute to pain. In 2013, CU-Boulder researchers found that morphine prolonged pain after major surgery. The findings are especially significant, since opioid dependence can set in after a very 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.”

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.