Hoping to help combat chronic pain in arthritis sufferers, researchers at the University of Manchester have discovered a link between the number of opiate receptors in the brain and patients’ pain receptors.
According to a statement, researchers noticed that among the 46% of the UK population estimated to suffer from chronic pain, some seem to cope with the pain better than others. Further study of these coping mechanisms has the potential to yield new methods of alleviating pain.
Dr. Christopher Brown of the University of Manchester lead a study that used Positron Emission Tomography (PET) imaging to show that the more opiate receptors there are in the brain, the higher the pain threshold.
Using a laser stimulator, heat was applied to the skin of 17 patients with arthritis and 9 without. From the study, researchers determined that the brain increases the number of opiate receptor as an adaptation to chronic pain.
“As far as we are aware, this is the first time these changes have been associated with increased resilience to pain and shown to be adaptive,” Dr. Brown said. Around 20% of consultations in general practice concern patients with chronic pain — pain which lasts longer than six months.
“Although the mechanisms of these adaptive changes are unknown, if we can understand how we can enhance them, we may find ways of naturally increasing resilience to pain without the side effects associated with many pain killing drugs,” Dr. Brown said.
To patients with arthritis, pain treatments that do not involve addictive painkilling drugs are very enticing.
“The notion of enhancing the natural opiates in the brain, such as endorphins, as a response to pain, seems to me to be infinitely preferable to long term medication with opiate drugs,” said Val Derbyshire, a patient suffering from arthritis. “Any drug that can reduce reliance on strong medication is worth pursuing.”