When people are in pain, they sometimes experience more than just physical suffering. They can also feel stressed, anxious, or depressed. Sometimes, these bad emotions lead a person to take more prescription pain medicine than they need, or to use other kinds of drugs, to try to feel good.
But that can actually make things much worse. Misusing opioids (including taking a bigger dose, or amount, than their doctor prescribed) can lead to serious problems, like overdose.
Is there a way to prevent one problem (negative emotions related to physical pain) from leading to another problem (using drugs or misusing opioids)? Scientists are starting to find out.
Scientists who study the brain have learned more about an opioid receptor network in the brain that plays a role in how the negative emotions associated with physical pain are turned on and off. They discovered that this collection of opioid receptors might be important in helping control the negative emotions related to pain. For example:
When this opioid receptor network is activated, it reduces a person’s impulse to seek out something that feels good. That contributes to the negative emotional states associated with pain. Then, these negative emotions could lead a person to use drugs or misuse prescription opioids in an attempt to feel good.
When the receptors in this network are blocked, that reduces the stress, anxiety, and depression that are brought by pain in the first place.
Researchers will continue to study this process, hopefully leading to medicines or other treatments that reduce the unpleasant emotions associated with pain.