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Research Shows Long-Term Opioid Use Can Increase Sensitivity to Pain

Long-term consumption of opioid painkillers like OxyContin, Vicodin, Percocet and Lortab may be more harmful than helpful to some people suffering from chronic pain. Not because of their addictiveness, but because they may increase patients’ suffering if taken for extended periods of time.

This is the conclusion of a growing number of medical researchers, who’ve linked the repeated use of pharmaceutical-grade opioids to a condition called hyperalgesia, which means increased sensitivity to pain.

When this disorder develops, a chronic pain sufferer’s discomfort will seem to intensify, despite their use of prescription painkillers and no change in the underlying condition responsible for their suffering. At this stage, opioid medications actually have a perverse effect, contributing to suffering rather than reducing it.

Tolerance for Drugs and Intolerance for Pain: A Dangerous Combination

It has been known for some time that patients taking opioid medications will develop tolerance over time, forcing them to consume larger and larger amounts of these drugs in order to achieve pain relief. Opioids are highly addictive by nature (they belong to the same family of chemicals as heroin), and without careful supervision by a physician, escalating use of opioids can be an extremely treacherous practice.

Only recently has the capacity of these drugs to cause hyperalgesia been established. This condition can easily be confused with tolerance, since one follows the other and both will seem to reduce the effectiveness of painkillers. As such it can encourage further overconsumption of opioids and increase the chances of an addiction developing.

It isn’t clear what percentage of people who consume opioid painkillers on a long-term basis will develop heightened sensitivity to pain. But the existence of a connection has been verified, and for many patients the drugs they counted on to relieve their misery are no longer an effective solution.

Coming to Grips With the Truth About Opioid Abuse in America

While the extent of the risk of hyperalgesia for opioid users is uncertain, the risk of drug dependency associated with excessive consumption of OxyContin, Vicodin and Percocet is not. Here are some disturbing facts about opioid abuse:

  • Approximately 2 million Americans will suffer from a prescription painkiller addiction in any given year — and opioid medications are by far the most commonly prescribed category of these drugs.
  • Of the 47,000 Americans who die from drug overdose deaths each year, about 40% will be attributable to prescription painkiller abuse, while another 20% will succumb to heroin overdose (heroin is also an opioid).
  • Up to 80% of heroin addicts got their start misusing prescription opioids.
  • Out of all the people in rehab for opioid addiction in 2014, more than 90% had turned to heroin at some point because it was cheaper than opioid painkillers.
  • Between 1999 and 2010, prescriptions for opioid medications increased by 400%. During the same period, the number of people admitted to treatment centers for substance abuse rose by 600%.
  • In 2012, doctors wrote 259 million prescriptions for opioid painkillers, which is enough to supply every adult American with more than one bottle of pills.

With the use and abuse of opioid medications at an all-time high, the number of people experiencing perverse and destructive effects from using these drugs has skyrocketed. Increased sensitivity to pain as a companion to tolerance is one of those side effects, but until now it hasn’t been acknowledged or studied extensively enough to determine how common it truly is.

Opioids Do Work, but So Do Their Alternatives

Any discussion of the negative side effects of prescription opioids inevitably generates controversy. There are millions of chronic pain sufferers who swear by these drugs and feel a need to vigorously defend them.

Their testimonies of delivery from hellish suffering are undoubtedly sincere, as many prescription opioid users do experience significant pain relief without falling into addiction. But the real source of the trouble is the Wild West mentality that predominated in medicine in the 1990s and early 2000s, when opioids were prescribed freely and routinely for all levels of pain. These actions were motivated by legitimate concern for patient welfare, but they put so many addictive painkillers into circulation that a mass outbreak of abuse was all but inevitable.

In addition to increased incidence of opioid and heroin abuse, hyperalgesia is another result of this overindulgence. While far from a universal experience, this condition creates tremendous problems for those suffering from extreme pain who don’t believe they have other realistic options for relief.

In fact alternatives in pain management do exist for those experiencing mild-to-moderate symptoms, and in some instances these remedies could help those suffering from more intense chronic pain as well. These other options include:

  • Exercise programs
  • Acupuncture or acupressure
  • Meditation
  • Yoga
  • Biofeedback or guided imagery
  • Therapeutic massage or hot/cold treatments
  • Other pain medications with fewer addictive qualities

These healing therapies aren’t panaceas, but all have value when included as part of a comprehensive, multidimensional (and non-narcotic) pain treatment regimen.

The Painful Reality of Opioid Abuse Is Upon Us

Playing fast and loose with medications like OxyContin, Vicodin, Lortab and Percocet has taken us down a dead-end alley. Untold millions have suffered the consequences (and are still suffering them) from the epidemic of overprescribing that preceded the epidemic of opioid addiction.

A loss of sensitivity to pain is one more unintended side effect of America’s love affair with prescription opioids. Physicians are only now becoming fully aware of this problem, which will undoubtedly put yet another nail in the coffin of medicine’s fading infatuation with narcotic painkillers.


Posted on April 25th, 2017 in Addiction

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