When it comes to opiates, we’re starting to recognize more and more of the dark side of something that was meant to provide relief. One of the biggest problems in our country right now is opiate addiction and overdose due to doctors prescribing narcotic painkillers to patients for many injuries that could have been managed differently. What if those pills that were temporarily relieving your pain, were actually making it worse in the long run? A new study from Colorado University, Boulder suggests that this is very likely to be true.
The study was run by Peter Grace and Linda Watkins and took place over the course of three months. First, they mimicked chronic nerve pain by opening up the rats’ thighs and tying a thread around a nerve – the thread dissolved after six weeks. Ten days after that, the rats received a treatment of morphine for a total of five days. From there, they tested the rats’ sensitivity to pain for the next three months.
In order to test the rats pain threshold they poked them with very fine threads of increasing sizes. The finer the thread the rat reacted to, the more sensitive it was to pain. After only six weeks, the rats who had been injured and not treated with morphine withdrew from the same thread as the rats who had not been injured at all – which meant their pain threshold was normal. Doubling that, it took 12 weeks before the rats treated with morphine saw their pain threshold return to that of an uninjured rat.
“Our key finding is that we were able to demonstrate that a brief treatment with a painkiller, like morphine, doubled the duration of chronic pain,” said Peter Grace, an Assistant Research Professor in the department of psychology and neuroscience.
This experiment proves that narcotic painkillers, like morphine, can end up having the opposite of the desired effect in the long run. In the study, they found that morphine and similar painkillers intensified the release of specific immune cells in the spinal cord, which in turn lead to prolonged pain. It created what they called a “cascade of actions”, such as spinal cord inflammation.
“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 Professor Linda Watkins, who also led the study. “This is a very ugly side to opioids that had not been recognized before.”
Studies like this one are extremely important – we didn’t have this knowledge when we started prescribing narcotic painkillers for slightly more than minor aches and pains. If you’ve ever had a temporary prescription filled after a surgery, then you know they often prescribe you more than you are likely to need, too. All this can end up causing more problems for the individuals who suffer from chronic pain – and many people might not be in so much pain if it weren’t for the opiates in the first place.
There are many, many patients who swear that medical marijuana was able to help them get off opiate painkillers – and that they are in less pain after getting off of them. Heroin addicts go through withdraw pain, but people on a prescription never consider that they could be seeing the same symptoms. The word for it is hyperalgesia, which means the increase of chronic pain due to the use of opiates.
When you stop taking painkillers – especially if you’ve been taking them for years, even at the prescribed dosage the entire time – you will experience more pain than you would after your body recovers. However, in states where medical marijuana is a viable option for chronic pain, this is very possible to do while still having a way to cope with the pain that doesn’t cause the same long-term effects.
This is definitely a case for the FDA and DEA to consider when they make their decision in the next month or so on whether or not to reschedule marijuana in the Controlled Substances Act. If we’re already trying to overcome the opiate epidemic that has spread throughout our nation, then medical marijuana might just be the best way to do it. Hopefully, they will take this study into account and perhaps even fund further studies on opiates causing hyperalgesia and also the use of medical marijuana in chronic pain patients and as a treatment method for addiction.