With the surge of the opioid crisis, doctors, scientists, and researchers have begun reevaluating the effectiveness of traditional pain management. What they found was that the way pain had been primarily addressed for decades can make it worse.
The worsening pain appeared to not only affect patients physically but mentally as well. Rebound effects of medication, soaring rates of addiction, withdrawals, and the need for medication replacements challenged doctors to reconsider the way pain is treated. Here’s what they found.
An Introduction to Traditional Pain Management
Twenty years ago, if you walked into an emergency room or physician’s office complaining of pain, you were almost sure to leave with a prescription in hand. Ailments ranging from backaches to migraines sprained ankles to stitches, all got you a prescription. Usually for an opioid pain killer.
Prescription rates soared in the 1990s. Initially, opioids had previously only been administered primarily to cancer patients. By 1999, it was reported that 86% of those receiving the prescriptions were using them for pain that wasn’t related to cancer.
The Problem With Prescription Opioids for Pain Management
As the effect of long-term prescription opioid treatment had not yet been studied, doctors didn’t know opioids could worsen pain symptoms as treatment progressed.
Now that researchers have been looking deeper into the matter, they’ve found surprising results. A study at the University of Adelaide in Australia found that those using prescription opioids had a much lower pain tolerance than those who did not. The phenomenon is known as opioid-induced hyperalgesia (OIH).
A similar study at Virginia Commonwealth University showed the same results, and another at the University of Colorado also confirmed the condition.
How Opioids Change the Brain
Why are medications designed to treat pain, making it worse? It doesn’t make sense. The study at the University of Adelaide found that when patients are given opioids at too high of a dose for too long of a time, the drugs physically alter how the central nervous system functions. The medication changes how individuals process and respond to pain.
The University of Colorado study found that after just five days of opioid consumption, patients’ response to pain was considerably more significant. What’s more, is that the study followed the patients for several months after they had stopped taking the medication and the condition persisted.
Factoring in Medication Tolerance
Humans build a tolerance to opioid medications quickly. Building a tolerance means that an individual will continuously require higher and higher doses of the medication to receive equivalent pain relief. Experts state that tolerance can begin to develop as quickly as a matter of days. For others, it can take months.
The problem with developing a tolerance to pain medication is that as it builds, patients’ perceived pain levels increase. Traditional pain management is, essentially, worsening patients’ pain.
The Rebound Effect
Another major problem with traditional pain management is that the protocols of administering medication aren’t designed to be permanent. Often, the plan is for patients to take opioid medication for a period of time before stopping.
But when patients stop taking the pain-blocking medications, they’ve become accustomed to, a rebound effect occurs. A rebound effect is when the pain comes back, but since an individual is used to medication that lessens the feeling, they perceive the pain to be even worse than before.
Perhaps the worst part of opioid pain medication is that when patients stop taking it, they are likely to experience severe withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms include body aches, nausea, vomiting, and other flu-like symptoms.
Alternatives to Traditional Pain Management
Luckily, more and more professionals are turning to alternative treatment methods. It’s been found that non-prescription opioids are not only just as effective at treating pain most of the time, but they don’t have the same effects of worsening pain as they are taken.
Doctors have also become more prone to address the underlying condition causing pain in the first place instead of prescribing medication that is just meant to treat the symptom.
As traditional pain management techniques lose popularity among both doctors and patients, alternative treatment methods have become more widely utilized.
Alternative treatment methods include:
- Physical therapy
- Massage therapy
- Dietary changes
- Chiropractic care
- And more
What to Do if You’re Experiencing Pain
If you’re suffering from either a chronic or acute condition that’s causing you pain, consult with your doctor for the best course of treatment. Know that there are a variety of options available to you, not just traditional pain management and prescription medication.