Chronic pain is one of the hardest ailments to treat. You can keep medicating it forever, but over time people build up a tolerance for painkillers. Many people struggle with chronic pain for years. But today, researchers announced they may have found one way to get rid of at least some types of chronic pain forever.
Calling something chronic pain isn't awfully specific — it just means that you hurt constantly rather than on the short term. But it looks like scientists think they can beat one form of the disease by blasting you with a quick, powerful dose of opioids.
With chronic pain, the nervous system's pain pathways are in a constant state of activation, what's known as "synaptic potentiation." While painkillers can depress these connections, when you're in pain they're cranked up — and with chronic pain they're always in the "on" position.
When something hurts you, your body creates synaptic link to express the hurt. This action can create a long term potentiation — a continuing link between two neurons, like a memory of pain. The LTP lingers long after the actual source of the wound is gone, and can cause chronic pain. It can also lead to hyperalgesia, an increased sensitivity to pain.
The researchers approached this by giving rats a brief, but high, dose of remifentanil, an opioid that acts very quickly but has a short lifespan. By doing this, the drug seems to have reset the synaptic link back to its natural state, depotentiating it. The short drug kick nocked the pathway back into its proper unelevated, level, effectively combatting not just the potentiation that had formed, but also the pain sensitivity that the rats felt.
With this technique, hopefully we can start combatting pain that's very real, even if the cause for it isn't immediately obvious.