- Written by News in Health, National Institutes of Health
- Published: 19 December 2018
Part 1: Moving beyond opioids
Most people experience some kind of pain during their lives. Pain serves an important purpose: it warns the body when it’s in danger. Think of when your hand touches a hot stove. But ongoing pain causes distress and affects quality of life. Pain is the number one reason people see a doctor.
A class of drugs called opioids is often used to treat pain. One reason, explains National Institutes of Health (NIH) pain expert Dr. Michael Oshinsky, is that opioids work well for many people. Opioids can stop the body from processing pain on many levels, from the skin to the brain. Because they work throughout the body, he says, “Opioids can be very effective for multiple types of pain.”
But opioids also produce feelings of happiness and well-being. And they’re reinforcing: the more people take them, the more they crave them. This can lead to addiction, or continuing to take opioids despite negative consequences. Scientists have not yet been able to develop opioids that reduce pain without producing these addicting effects, Oshinsky explains.
The longer someone takes opioids, the more they may need to take to get the same effect. This is called tolerance. Having a high tolerance doesn’t always mean you’ll become addicted. But taking higher doses of opioids increases the risk for both addiction and overdose.
The U.S. is now in the grip of an opioid crisis. Every day, more than 100 Americans die from an opioid overdose. This number includes deaths from prescription opioids.
“We don’t need ‘better’ opioids. We need to move away from the reliance on opioids for developing pain treatments,” Oshinsky says.
NIH is funding research into new and more precise ways to treat pain. It’s also working to develop new treatments to combat opioid misuse and addiction.
Article adapted from the NIH October 2018 News in Health.