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Study Finds Prescription Painkillers Actually Cause Chronic Pain

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The prescription painkiller epidemic that has plagued the U.S. in recent years has received a lot of attention (though many would argue not nearly enough). Whether the source of the problem is liberal prescriptions, improper usage, or straightforward abuse, the incidence of mortality associated with prescription painkillers continues to rise. Now, adding another element to the situation, new research suggests that these painkillers may not simply alleviate pain, but actually cause long-term, chronic pain to persist in the process.

What Did the Study Find?

A research team out of the University of Colorado-Boulder recently performed the study in question, ultimately determining that opioid use increased chronic pain in rats. As with all animal studies, it is difficult to determine if the same effect holds true in humans, but if so, the findings would indicate that not only are opioids dangerously addictive, but that they might actually worsen the condition they are designed to treat.

In fact, the researchers found that a mere five days of morphine treatment in rats resulted in chronic pain lasting for several months, caused by the release of pain signals from immune cells within the spinal cord. These cells—known as glial cells—help to eliminate infectious microorganisms, but it appears that opioids send repeated signals to these cells and trigger a response. As a result, the activity of nerve cells in the spinal cord and brain increases, and the outcome is intense chronic pain that can last for months.

What are the Implications?

The most troubling implication of this research is that opioid use may actually be self-perpetuating in a way that was not previously recognized.

It has long been established that opioids (such as morphine, oxycodone, and methadone) are dangerous due to their highly addictive nature, but that they may actually cause pain—and therefore create the need to continue using them and increase the individual’s addiction—is an alarming new finding.

People who make the decision to take opioids for severe, short-term pain may experience serious, long-term effects as a result, and thereby become more susceptible to addiction. The bottom line is that opioids may not only cause repeated use because they are extremely addictive, but because they also cause prolonged, chronic pain that requires more medication. In effect, taking opioids may lead to a cycle of continued use.

Alternatives to Opioids

It is impossible to make definitive conclusions based on animal studies, but when paired with the already-established risks associated with opioid use, this study further supports avoiding opioids as a precaution. Obviously, the simplest way to limit your risk is to simply avoid taking opioids altogether; consider talking to your doctor about alternative types of painkillers.

Moreover, should you absolutely have to take opioids for severe pain, be extremely cautious to take the smallest amount possible, and establish a plan beforehand to discontinue usage as soon as possible. On a similar note, be cognizant of their addictive nature, and if you think you may be experiencing the early signs of addiction, do not hesitate to seek help.

Better still, if you are able to avoid painkillers altogether, and instead seek natural pain reducing remedies, you may be surprised by how effectively you can manage your pain naturally. Food, exercise, meditation, and manipulation are all methods that people typically use to eliminate pain, and are worthy of exploration before turning to painkillers. Next time you are faced with the decision to take opioids or not—or any painkiller for that matter—give some serious thought to the risk versus the reward. An alternative to painkillers may just be the better option.


Derek is a technical writer and editor with 10 years of experience in the health care field, having first earned a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Delaware. He is a contributing author on a number of textbooks in the medical field, ran a nuclear cardiology licensing course, and has written a variety of other pieces from online training courses to medical software manuals. Derek pursues his personal interest in health and wellness by playing multiple sports and running marathons. An insatiable traveler, he spent 16 months working and living abroad while traveling through South America, Europe, and Southeast Asia.


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