Will Treating Opioids’ Side Effects Stop People from Becoming Addicted?
Physicians continue to prescribe opioid-based painkillers despite the medication’s role in the overdose deaths of more than 20,000 Americans in 2016 alone. Prescription opioids are most frequently recommended to treat conditions like chronic pain and symptoms related to cancer. Over time, patients build up a tolerance to opioids and must increase their dose in order to feel the same pain-relieving effects as their original dose.
Prescription opioids have a host of side effects. Constipation, lowered respiration rates and increased sensitivity to pain are all common symptoms of long-term opioid use. Although these side effects may disturb a patient’s quality of life, without a different treatment recommendation from a physician, patients can feel trapped into ongoing use of prescription opioids in order to meet their medical needs.
In a new study conducted by researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine, published in Nature Medicine, a common medicine was found to mitigate some negative side effects of long term opioid abuse. The researchers found that by treating mice with drugs that blocked opioids’ interaction with the peripheral nervous system, their increased tolerance to opioids as well as their increased sensitivity to pain disappeared.
Although without human trials there’s no way to know if the same effect can be produced in people prescribed opioid-based medications, the study suggests that pairing an opioid prescription with another drug to minimize side effects could be an effective addiction prevention tool. The idea is that if opioid dosage does not need to increase to remain effective, people will be less likely to become addicted to and ultimately overdose on opioids.
Even without the wide variety of effective pain management options patients can choose instead of prescription opioids, treating the symptoms of one medication with another medication doesn’t always make sense. Patients will likely have to foot the bill for another prescription drug unless their insurance company is willing to cover the addition. Adding another prescription purely to treat side effects also increases the risk of an accidental overdose or misuse of one prescription drug by confusing it for another. Further, each of these secondary drugs treats only some of the side effects of opioids. Drugs are already on the market to counteract opioid-induced constipation. It is a problem that spirals out of control.
The researchers called for prompt human trials of the drug cocktail in order to test their study’s results and accelerate the combined drugs’ availability for human use. It is unclear, however, that there would be solid relationship between prescribing a drug to decrease opioid side-effects and less opioid abuse.
Meanwhile, addiction treatment providers and community health professionals have already outlined a comprehensive national plan to curb the opioid epidemic. Emphasizing education, connecting first responders to affordable overdose-reversal drugs like naloxone, and providing addicts the crucial treatment and services they need are all clear steps forward in the fight against opioid abuse. The medical community should celebrate all advances in addiction treatment research, so long as we don’t lose sight of the treatments proven to work and the thousands of American lives at stake.