Prescription opioids have been a hot topic for quite a few years.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) indicates that the misuse of pain-relieving drugs classified as opiates has now risen to the point of being “a public health crisis” in America today.
A few of the statistics provided by the NIDA to support this high-level alarm include:
- As many as one-third (20 to 30 percent) of individuals who are prescribed opiates will not correctly follow their directions of use.
- Approximately one in ten (8 to 12 percent) people taking prescription opioids can expect to develop an opioid-use disorder.
- About 5 percent of prescription opioid users will move on to using heroin, an illegal street-level opioid that research has found is more available, thus easier to get.
- Roughly 115 people die every day due to opioid overdose.
The NIDA adds that this opioid crisis has “devastating consequences,” not only impacting the nation financially—prescription opioid misuse costs an estimated $78.5 billion per year in health care expenses, lost productivity, criminal justice actions, and treatment for addiction—but also for the individuals and families themselves via addiction and potentially death.
Many health care professionals agree and are asking what can be done to reduce the reliance on opioids for pain relief. Some researchers are investigating this problem are finding the solution to be elusive.
The trouble with chronic pain treatment
A 2011 article in the Journal of Pain Research claims that chronic pain “continues to defy health professionals” mainly because of the many facets behind how pain progresses.
Sometimes these factors involve the exact way a person’s nervous system responds to pain-causing stimulus, whereas others focus more on the patient’s emotional state or behaviors that contribute to the pain.
Further, effective pain management can become even more complex, such as when using treatment methods that create systemic effects.
With regard to opioids specifically, research published by Pain Physician states that common effects include “sedation, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, constipation, physical dependence, tolerance, and respiratory depression.”
Some users have also reported experiencing digestive issues, immune system dysfunction, muscle rigidity, and increased sensitivity to pain after taking this type of drug. These responses complicate pain treatment further by creating a new subset of conditions that must either be accepted or dealt with as well.
For reasons such as these, patients experiencing chronic pain can benefit from engaging in treatments designed to provide relief to one specific area without creating a negative impact on other regions or systems of the body. Topicals are one such treatment.
How topicals work
Topicals are creams, oils, lotions or any other type of product applied to the skin to cover painful areas of the body. This provides direct, non-systemic relief.
Furthermore, the way in which the pain is eased is determined largely by the ingredients in the topical being used.
For instance, some topicals contain menthol or camphor. These two ingredients act as counterirritants, working by “imparting a cooling effect and by initially stimulating nociceptors and then sensitizing them,” according to research published in the Journal of Clinical Pharmacy and Therapeutics.
Many studies have found positive results with regard to using counterirritants for pain. For example, Rehabilitation Research and Practice published one study in 2014 that found individuals with carpal tunnel syndrome had decreased hand pain when using a menthol topical versus placebo.
Another study looked at an ointment containing both menthol and camphor and found that it caused a “complete remission” of pain in individuals with temporomandibular muscular pain.
Capsaicin, on the other hand, is an ingredient that warms the area where it is applied, which can be helpful for easing joint-related pain such as arthritis. One review of five double-blind randomized controlled trials and one case-crossover trial concluded that using a topical with this ingredient four times a day reduced pain intensity in individuals diagnosed with osteoarthritis.
No one-size-fits-all answer
Although there is no one-size-fits-all answer to the opioid crisis facing the U.S. today, topicals can and do play an important role in providing pain relief.
And they do it without the risk of addiction or overdose that is a concern with prescription pain