The government is attempting to pour research dollars into new medical technologies that could help to alleviate some of the opiate crisis that we are experiencing.
10 TV says that “The first step in the state’s effort to find new innovations to fight the opiate crisis has been taken. Ten million was just awarded to seven projects in the works to become reality. Their new approach to relieving sciatic nerve pain could eliminate a big need for opioids.”
So this is just one specific example of a certain type of pain that is being experienced, and obviously it does not apply to everyone. Someone going to the emergency room with a broken elbow is not going to benefit from this type of new medication being discussed here.
But the bigger picture is that new types of research and medication alternatives can be developed if we are willing to put more money into it. In this case, the government is spending several million dollars in order to figure out an alternative for one type of pain that applies to a very limited audience. But the broader application is that, if these types of developments are successful, then we could scale this up and develop a whole new crop of drugs that can alleviate pain without posing the same risks that opiates do.
Why are opiate drugs so bad?
Several reasons. In order to understand why opiates are so dangerous, let’s take a look at what is actually happening in the brain when we medicate ourselves with drugs such as Vicodin, Oxycontin, or Percocet (just to name a few examples).
Your body, just like every human body, has a survival mechanism inside of it that helps to regulate pain management in the body. For example, if you are in the jungle and a tree falls on your leg and you are suddenly in serious pain, your brain will recognize this pain and it will release some extra dopamine in order to combat this pain and allow you to struggle through the situation.
In order for the human body to have this option available where it naturally regulates its own pain, it has to have a baseline. And so that baseline is delivered to your body every single moment of every day, a tiny drip feed of dopamine in your brain, just a trickle amount. That is the baseline so that when you get into a serious, fight or flight kind of life or death situation, your brain has the option of increasing that baseline amount to give you a little extra “juice” when it is needed most. So the baseline trickle is found in all of us, every moment of every day. Just a tiny trickle.
When you go to the emergency room and the doctor has you swallow 2 Vicodin pills for your broken elbow, the opiate molecules in the pills go to the receptors in your brain that normally accept opiate molecules, and they attach themselves to those receptors. When that happens, the brain sighs with relief and it releases lots of extra dopamine and it medicates your pain. Now the way that it does this is that it does NOT actually reduce or eliminate the pain signals that are going from your elbow to your brain, signalling that there is damage.
No, in fact the pain signal in your body is still there and it is unchanged by the opiates. The elbow damage is still sending this SOS to the brain, saying “I’m hurt badly!”
However, what the Vicodin does is that it releases so much dopamine that that brain becomes relaxed in a sense and, while it still receives the pain signal from the elbow, it no longer cares as much about it.
So you see, opiates and painkillers do not actually eliminate pain, nor do they even reduce it. The pain signal being sent from the injury on your body is still happening, and it is not diminished because of the opiates. Instead, the opiate medication medicates the brain so that it dulls the brain, causing it to care less about the pain signal.
If your pain is the bells on top of an old alarm clock, clanging together madly, then opiate medicine is the equivalent of sticking a rag in between the bells. They are still clanging together, but you just made it so that they make less noise. Opiates cause the brain to care less about the pain.
So you can see that this is really a dangerous way to medicate the human body, because if the person is suffering from any emotional pain at the time, the opiate medication will cause the brain to care less about that emotional pain as well. And that is really dangerous because the emotional pain is not something that we should be able to avoid. Instead, it is something to be dealt with and processed and learned from. If we run away from our problems because we avoid them with a drug then that is a prime condition for addiction to flourish.
This is why opiates are so dangerous–because they don’t actually reduce pain at all in the body, they just dull the brain and cause it to care less.
The question is, do we have enough economic incentive to research, test, and discover the proper alternatives to opiate based painkillers?
Based on the addictive nature of these drugs, I would say that there is a serious disincentive to creating non-addictive alternatives.
I mean, would the top executive of a big tobacco company want to convert all of their cigarettes into something that is no longer addictive? Do you think we could convince that executive that this would not hur their profits?
That example points out a pretty painful truth–opiate based painkillers are popular because they are addictive, not because they work great. Of course if you take enough of an opiate you will eventually coma and die from it, so sure, we could argue that the opiate medicine “works.” But does it really work in the sense that it allows you to deal with pain and live a productive life? If you go from abusing Vicodin to scrambling for heroin in the streets–which actually does happen by the way–then I would argue that opiates don’t necessary “work” in the way that we want them too.
What we want are pain solutions in the medical field that actually allow people to function, to deal with their condition, and to maintain a decent standard of living. Hopefully the government money produces a medication that can revolutionize and pave the way for a whole new host of non-addictive drugs in the future.