If everything hurts, and you’re becoming sensitive to pain, it’s time to ask why. For a significant number of people suffering from chronic pain, the source of their increased sensitivity may be the drugs that are supposed to fight the pain. This is cruel and ironic. Long-term consumption of opioid painkillers like OxyContin®, Vicodin®, Percocet® and Lortab® may work against the long-term goals of chronic pain sufferers. These narcotic painkillers can increase patients’ suffering if taken for extended periods of time. This is the conclusion of a growing number of medical researchers, who have linked the repeated use of pharmaceutical-grade opioids to a condition called hyperalgesia.
What Is Hyperalgesia?
“Algesia” is a Greek word meaning “sensitivity to pain.” “Hyperalgesia” means “hyper sensitivity to pain.” If you have a chronic pain condition, hypersensitivity to pain (or hyperalgesia) is the last thing you want. While hyperalgesia often occurs for unknown reasons after an injury, there is a unique category of the condition called opioid-induced hyperalgesia (OIH). In this case, the reason for the hypersensitivity is clear: the opioid pain medicine. When this disorder develops, the discomfort of someone with chronic pain will seem to intensify, despite them using prescription painkillers and no change in the underlying condition responsible for their suffering.
Signs & Symptoms of Hyperalgesia
There are a few ways you or doctor may notice hypersensitivity to pain (or hyperalgesia):
- An increase in pain, even though your condition or injury has not worsened
- A spread of pain to neighboring uninjured or unaffected body parts
- Feelings of pain with external stimuli that wouldn’t ordinarily hurt (like a gentle massage or back scratch)
If you notice any of these symptoms and are taking opioid pain medication, talk to your doctor about them. Ask if they think you may be developing hyperalgesia. There is no test for the condition, but a doctor can make the diagnosis based on your symptoms. It never hurts to ask about a non-narcotic pain management strategy. Depending on how severe your condition is and your physician’s comfort level with non-narcotic pain management, you may need a referral to a pain specialist or pain clinic that specializes in non-narcotic pain management.
Tolerance for Drugs + Intolerance for Pain = A Recipe for Addiction
Most people who take opioid medications for pain follow their doctors’ orders, develop tolerance over time and require increased doses, but they do not become addicted. Some people, however, do become addicted to opioids, which are in the same family as heroin. Without careful supervision by a physician, escalating use of opioids can lead to problems like addiction. Only recently have researchers demonstrated the capacity of these drugs to cause hyperalgesia. Physicians can easily confuse this condition with increased tolerance. Both seem to reduce the effectiveness of painkillers. The combination of increased tolerance and increased sensitivity to pain in general raises your risk of taking too many opioids. Overconsumption is the fast-track to addiction. It isn’t clear what percentage of people, who have been long-term opioid painkiller users, develop heightened sensitivity to pain. But a connection has been verified. Unfortunately, for many people, the drugs they counted on to relieve their misery are no longer an effective solution.
Opioid Abuse in America by Statistics
While the extent of the risk of hyperalgesia for opioid users is uncertain, the risk of drug dependency associated with excessive consumption is well known:
- Approximately 2 million Americans will suffer from a prescription painkiller addiction in any given year. 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.
- 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 of opioid medications at an all-time high, the number of people experiencing their destructive effects has skyrocketed. Increased sensitivity to pain as a companion to tolerance is one of those side effects, and it’s one of the most ironic.
Non-Opioid Pain Management
Alternatives in pain management do exist for those experiencing mild-to-moderate symptoms. In some instances, these remedies could help those suffering from more intense chronic pain as well. Some of these other options include:
- Exercise programs
- Acupuncture or acupressure
- Meditation and mindfulness
- Biofeedback or guided imagery
- Therapeutic massage or hot/cold treatments
- Injections and nerve blocks
- Other pain medications with fewer addictive qualities
Technology also offers new and exciting prospects for pain management. For example, radiofrequency ablation used radio waves to burn the nerve responsible for pain, providing pain relief for up to a year. Transcutaneous nerve stimulation uses low-voltage electrical signals to provide an almost acupuncture-like experience at home. It tends to provide quick, short-term pain relief. These healing therapies aren’t cures, but all have value when included as part of a comprehensive pain treatment regimen. For patients with opioid-induced hyperalgesia, a holistic approach to pain management is a non-negotiable.
The Painful Reality of Opioid Abuse Is Upon Us
For some people with chronic pain, opioid medications are important pieces of their pain management, but it’s important to be aware of what the consequences of higher doses can be. If you’re taking opioids for pain, maintain open communication with your doctor to help prevent addiction and other issues from developing. If you think you’re addicted to painkillers, contact The Ranch PA at [phone] for help.