Exploring alternatives to opioid use

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Opioid addiction is a topic that has affected many people in some way or another; in fact, almost 33 percent of college students have reported knowing somebody who overdosed on painkillers or heroin.

Opioid abuse inevitably leads to addiction, a disease that contributes to the number one source of accidental death in the United States: Drug overdose. Over 115 Americans die each day as a result of opioid overdose and many of these Americans obtain these drugs through a prescription.

Surprisingly, although the number of opioid prescriptions is rising, reported pain has remained steady. When comparing the lack of successful pain management with the numbers of opioid-associated deaths, one can see that opioids are actually causing more pain than they relieve. Therefore, it is necessary to pursue safer and more effective methods of pain relief.

Jelena Janjic, a professor at Duquesne University, has proposed one such method that transfers nanoparticles encapsulating non-addictive pain medications into areas experiencing pain via the body’s natural immune response. Upon discovering that her own chronic pain was triggered by an increased volume of immune cells attempting to fight damage to certain areas of her body, Janjic devised a system that would inject medicine into those cells. This is a very clever idea, but the problem is that not all pain is caused by high levels of immune activity. While this approach may work for some patients, it is not a cure-all opioid replacement.

What Janjic’s work does show is that there are other possibilities for pain management that don’t include addictive narcotics. Her research indicates that patients’ acute or chronic pain stems from a variety of sources and can be better alleviated by personalized treatments. While it can be very challenging, doctors should exhaustively seek out alternative treatment plans before turning to opioids, which decrease in effectiveness over time and are readily abused.

Medical marijuana is one substance that is becoming increasingly popular as a painkiller and substitute for opioids. While some see cannabis as a cheaper and safer replacement for addictive opioids, a large problem concerning the use of this drug is the lack of research about its effects. People may not die from marijuana overdose, but there is still not enough information known about all of its risks and the ways that it relieves pain.

The biggest issue with using marijuana as medication is that it is legally labeled a “Schedule 1” drug, meaning it is classified as highly addictive and of no proven medical value. This classification is creating a barrier against legitimate research of the substance, so many of the studies conducted are not top-notch and result in conflicting conclusions. Although some studies report high success of cannabis as a pain reliever, others show that it actually worsens pain. Replacing a known potentially harmful drug for a relatively unknown potentially harmful drug is not the best solution to the opioid crisis.

Other possibilities for managing pain include non-medical options such as hypnosis, meditation, physical therapy, counseling and acupuncture. None of these remedies are assured to relieve pain either, but they are definitely safer than opioids. Patients will not all respond the same way to the same treatments but that is no reason to default to prescribing opioids that can cause addiction and accidental death, especially when their effectiveness declines with use and is not reported to be very high. Innovative technology and more well-funded research supporting or opposing alternatives such as marijuana are places to start when looking for solutions to each patient’s individualized pain.


Veronica Eskander is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at veronica.eskander@uconn.edu.   

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