Chronic pain sufferers could be set for some relief as Manchester-based research has discovered the body’s natural painkillers could be enhanced.
Scientists at the University of Manchester have examined how brain chemistry responds to pain and discovered why some people have a higher threshold for it than others.
This could lead to improved treatment for sufferers of severe chronic pain, which makes up 46% of the UK population, such as arthritis patients.
Dr Christopher Brown, who worked on the project, said: “We may find ways of naturally increasing resilience to pain without the side effects associated with many pain-killing drugs.”
Dr Brown and his team used a laser stimulator to apply heat to the skin of 17 patients with arthritis, and a control group of nine people without.
They found that patients with more opiate receptors in their brains had an increased ability to withstand pain.
It has been known for some time that receptors in the brain respond to painkilling opiates, but this research shows that some people increase the number of receptors in their brains in response to pain and that allows them to deal with it better than others.
Scientists are now hoping a better form of treatment than those currently available for chronic pain can be developed by finding a way to enhance how many receptors people can increase.
Professor Anthony Jones, director of the Manchester Pain Consortium, said: “It may be that some simple interventions can further enhance this natural process.
“Designing smart molecules or simple non-drug interventions to do a similar thing is potentially attractive.”
Some people are concerned by the side effects of drugs used in arthritis treatment, and opioids like the highly addictive codeine are often used to alleviate the pain.
Dr Brown and his team’s research could lead to treatments that don’t involve such side effects.
Val Derbyshire, a patient with arthritis, told the University of Manchester that taking her opioid medication concerned her ‘due to the addictive nature of the drugs’.
She said: “The notion of enhancing the natural opiates in the brain, such as endorphins, as a response to pain, seems to me to be infinitely preferable to long term medication with opiate drugs.
“Anything that can reduce reliance on strong medication must be worth pursuing.”
The research was funded by the Medical Research Council and relied on research techniques not widely available.
The team used Positron Emission Tomography (PET) imaging to examine the spread of the receptors in the patients they tested on.
Professor Wael El-Deredy, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at Manchester University, said: “Receptor imaging is challenging and requires the co-ordination of a large team to collect and analyse the images.
“We are very lucky to have this technique in Manchester. There are very few places in the world where this study could have been done.”