Helping a Brain in Pain

An image of star-shaped glia in red, young oligodendrocytes in green, and neurons in blue. in the brain.

Star-shaped glia called astrocytes (red) are the most abundant cell in the human brain. Young oligodendrocytes (green) are glia that help insulate nerve cell axons in the brain. The blue cells are neurons. (Image by NSF)

When people are in pain, they sometimes experience more than just physical suffering. They can also feel stressed, anxious, or depressed. Sometimes, these negative emotions lead a person to take more prescription pain medicine than they need, or to use other kinds of drugs, to try to feel better.

But that can actually make things much worse. Misusing opioids (including taking a larger 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 better.
  • When the receptors in this network are blocked, that decreases the stress, anxiety, and depression that are triggered 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.

Learn more: How to safely dispose of (throw away) opioids.

Find Help Near You

Use the SAMHSA Treatment Locator to find substance use or other mental health services in your area. If you are in an emergency situation, this toll-free, 24-hour hotline can help you get through this difficult time: call 1-800-273-TALK, or visit the Suicide Prevention Lifeline. We also have step by step guides on what to do to help yourself, a friend or a family member.

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