(NaturalHealth365) Evidence is mounting that taking opioid painkillers like morphine and oxycodone can in some cases actually make pain worse over time. This is, in part, because the more an opioid painkiller is used, the higher the dose that will be required to have the same effect in the future.
However, new findings show that using painkillers over time also makes the body more sensitive to the sensations pain – which in turn fuels the need for even higher doses.
This insidious effect, called hyperalgesia, renders pain medications less and less effective for relief from chronic pain. Because of this, people reach for increasing amounts of these drugs, raising their risk of side effects and dependence.
Painkillers have a long list of negative side effects
A recent study done with rats examined the interaction between nerve injury and opioids, and the results were alarming. Apparently, opioid painkillers trigger a chain reaction of signals related to immunity within the spinal cord. These signals actually amplify the pain instead of dulling it. The effect continued even after the drug left the subjects’ bodies, researchers found.
Many of the side effects of painkillers are already well known. In addition to physical dependence and addiction, they can cause constipation, nausea, vomiting, dizziness and respiratory problems. Other side effects of painkillers can include hyperalgesia, delayed gastric emptying, hormonal dysfunction, immunologic dysfunction, myoclonus and muscle stiffness.
However, the most dangerous potential effect of opioid painkillers is overdose and death. Deaths from overdose of prescription painkillers have quadrupled in the last two decades as the rate of prescription of these drugs has increased.
Opioid painkillers trigger an increase in pain sensitivity
Hyperalgesia is clearly part of this equation, as it compels people to take more and more of a drug to feel the same level of relief. In addition to slowing breathing to dangerous levels, high doses of these drugs seem to alter the human nervous system in a way that amplifies pain signals. The person then craves more painkillers, even after their original injury or medical issue has resolved.
These results were supported by the study with rats and further substantiated by the fact that many people taking opioid drugs – prior to a surgery – will report feeling more pain long after the procedure.
It seems that injury and opioid painkillers affect spinal cord cells called microglia, which are nervous system security guards that look for signs of infection. They release signaling molecules that activate spinal cord neurons that create pain signals in the brain. Opioids make these microglia far more sensitive to becoming activated. While this may not be the only process contributing to increased sensitivity to pain, it seems to be a major factor.
Finding safer alternatives to opioids
The list of dangerous side effects of opioid painkillers is formidable, making the need for finding safe alternatives an urgent matter. Some of the top natural remedies for pain include: vitamin C, willow bark, turmeric, cloves and holistic treatments like acupuncture, acupressure, reflexology and massage.
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