It turns out the reason for such instances may be due to the prescription opioids themselves increasing a patient’s pain. A new study conducted by researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder involving the use of rats could answer some questions regarding how the problem with prescription opioids in America got so bad, Forbes reports. The research will be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“We are showing for the first time that even a brief exposure to opioids can have long-term negative effects on pain,” said Peter Grace, an assistant research professor at CU-Boulder. “We found the treatment was contributing to the problem.”
The scientists administered morphine to rats over the course of a five day period; these rats experienced chronic pain that continued for several months. It was determined that the chronic pain was caused by immune cells in the spinal cord releasing pain signals, according to the report. When someone feels pain, spinal cord immune cells are placed on call to ward off “infection-causing microorganisms.” When opioids are administered it causes the immune cells, known as glial cells, to kick into overdrive—creating a cell signal from a protein called interleukin-1beta (IL-1b).
Here’s a breakdown on how it works:
- Pain is experienced.
- Opioids are administered.
- A glial cell cascade ensues.
- Interleukin-1beta (IL-1b) is produced.
- Spinal cord and brain nerve cells activity expands.
- Resulting in prolonged chronic pain.
“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. This is a very ugly side to opioids that had not been recognized before.”