A new study conducted by researchers at the University of Colorado, shows that prescription painkillers do very little in terms of helping with chronic or acute pain. Instead, the temporary masking of the pain that they do provide can actually lengthen or worsen the problem. This breakthrough comes at a very important time for the United States, a country that reportedly consumes 80% of all painkillers in the world.
Researchers administered painkillers to rats and found that after only five days on the medication, the rats suffered from chronic pain that lasted months. Researchers noted that the pain signals were coming from the spinal cord. Normally, the glial cells in the spinal cord are responsible for clearing out infection-causing microorganisms. However, when pain medication is administered, the cells are put on high alert and increase their activity, causing a buildup of glial cells in the spinal cord. This buildup stimulates the nerves and chronic pain is experienced for longer periods of time.
“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,” explained Peter Grace, researcher and faculty member in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Colorado-Boulder.
In order to take the research further, the study would need to be conducted on humans. However, researchers are excited about the progress. And for many, the findings answer the question of why people are reliant on prescription painkillers for so long. Understanding that painkillers are not only just temporarily covering up the problem, but also making it worse, explains why patients have to take such high doses for extended amounts of time to feel relief. Many are also convinced that they will continue to have pain if they stop taking the drugs, whether their original condition is still present or not.
This breakthrough study is likely to lead to further research into the effectiveness of opiate painkillers. The ineffectiveness, paired with the high rate of addiction may finally convince the medical community to stop blanket opiate prescriptions for pain, and instead seek more non-narcotic solutions and treatments.