Is a Non-Addictive Pain Reliever Coming?
Opioids have been used for thousands of years, and their addictive properties have been well-known and documented since the beginning. Despite the known dangers of opioids, however, these drugs continue to be the most popular and widely prescribed painkillers, making them accessible to the public and feeding the growing opioid epidemic.
A big part of the reason for the enduring popularity of opioids is their effectiveness. There simply are no other painkillers on the market that can effectively manage serious pain symptoms. Non-steroid anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like acetaminophen help by reducing inflammation, but they are not effective against all types of pain. They can also lead to organ damage when taken routinely, making them a poor choice for people with chronic pain.
Unfortunately, despite their efficiency at managing pain, opioids have additional unwanted effects. The first problem is the feeling of euphoria they can produce in the user, making them attractive for abuse and recreational usage. The second is the issue of chemical dependency. Even people who are not addicted to opioids can experience physical withdrawal symptoms after ceasing a dose.
Opioid Addiction and the Search for Alternatives
Opioids work by attaching to specific receptors in the brain. The body creates its own opioids in small quantities, which is why these receptors exist in the first place. By introducing additional opioids into the system, the receptors can be prompted to send a signal through the body. The result is neurotransmissions that block pain reception and provide calmness as the body is flooded with dopamine, a neurotransmitter responsible for feeling pleasure.
Opium was the original opioid, and in a natural form it has been in use for several thousand years. A purified version, morphine, was invented in 1805, providing more reliable dosing as well as a more effective high. Since that time, a variety of opium-based painkillers have been created, some of them synthetically produced to reflect the chemical makeup of opium. Modern opiate painkillers include Vicodin® , OxyContin® and Percocet® .
The challenge in creating a non-addictive pain reliever lies in finding alternatives to opioids that will be similarly effective.
Because of their chemical makeup and the way they work on the body, opioids will always have the potential for abuse and addiction. However, finding an alternative that is just as effective without the unwanted side effects of chemical dependency and abuse-encouraging euphoria has proven to be a challenge. OxyContin® , for example, was originally invented and advertised as being a non-addictive alternative; this turned out not to be the case, and OxyContin® addiction continues to be a problem. Pharmaceutical manufacturers will need to be careful to avoid the same fate with future drugs.
The Future of Non-Addictive Pain Relievers
Researchers are investigating a number of potential solutions for effective but non-addictive painkillers.
One option may be to formulate drugs with specific blockers in them, allowing the opioid substances to bind with some receptors but not others. The effect would, in theory, allow the drug to suppress pain without creating the effects of euphoria or stimulating an addictive response.
Another option is to research drugs that could affect different parts of the brain. For example, researchers have discovered that a specific protein ion channel is responsible for delivering pain signals to the brain; a drug that could prevent that channel from opening could effectively block pain signals without affecting brain chemistry. Other solutions may be discovered and researched in the future.
Whatever happens, it’s important to know that the chemical make-up of a drug is only part of what makes it addictive. Addiction is complex, and understanding all of the underlying causes driving drug abuse and overdose is just as important as looking for modern painkiller alternatives. Even if all of the painkillers in the world could be immediately replaced with non-addictive alternatives, some people would still struggle with addiction.
That’s why SpringBoard Recovery works individually with patients to provide support and assistance for those seeking to kick their addictive habits and begin their recovery journey.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse: https://www.drugabuse.gov/drug-topics/opioids
- MedlinePlus: https://medlineplus.gov/opioidmisuseandaddiction.html
- National Institute on Drug Abuse: https://www.drugabuse.gov/sites/default/files/rx_drugs_placemat_508c_10052011.pdf
- MedicineNet: https://www.medicinenet.com/nonsteroidal_antiinflammatory_drugs/article.htm
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: https://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/opioids/index.html
- National Institute on Drug Abuse: https://www.drugabuse.gov/news-events/nida-notes/2019/02/promising-alternative-to-opioid-pain-medications
- NAABT: https://www.naabt.org/faq_answers.cfm?ID=6#
- Partnership to End Addiction: https://drugfree.org/drugs/opium/#:~:text=Opium%20is%20an%20opioid%20or,or%20taken%20in%20pill%20form.
- Medical News Today: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/323465
- Healthline: https://www.healthline.com/health/addiction