In the year 2016, the opioid epidemic took the lives of over 60,000 Americans alone, and the death toll shows no sign of stopping. However, in the last two months, a group of scientists has reported finding a potential opioid alternative that could be the answer to the opioid problem.
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The Opioid Epidemic
Every year, billions of prescription opioid medications are sold in the U.S. and some states have a population of pills that triples, and even quadruple the human headcount. For example, between the years 2006 and 2016, out of state drug companies shipped over 21 million opioid pills to a town in West Virginia where the population of the town was under 3,000.
So it is no coincidence that West Virginia has ranked in as the highest overdose state on record so far, and in West Virginia alone, the death rate by opioid overdose is 48.3 out of every 100,000 people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Some people say it is the communities that are to blame, while others are taking legal matters into their own hands. Multiple states have signed onto a massive lawsuit against pharmaceutical companies such as Purdue, Johnson & Johnson, and Teva, to counteract the funding that has been needed to deal with the overdose deaths in major cities.
One major question on everyone’s minds is, why aren’t there any opioid alternatives that are nonaddictive?
Opioid Alternative – The Kappa Opioid Receptor
According to the group of scientists working out of the UNC School of Medicine have recently discovered that a previously known receptor protein in the brain successfully binds to molecules related to morphine.
Apparently, this particular structure, called the Kappa Opioid Receptor, could be the answer in creating an opioid alternative in the future. While the protein has long been known to be one of four receptors in the brain that reacts to opioids, this one is believed to not be associated with addictive tendencies.
However, while the protein does show signs of being able to trigger pain killing effects, it does have some potential downsides to it as well.
“There is a suggestion that targeting certain parts of the (Kappa) receptor would be more beneficial and others would basically trigger hallucinations, dysphoria, that sort of thing,” states Bryan Roth of UNC-Chapel Hill, who is a co-author of this new research.
According to the researchers, this particular protein structure, while possibly being the next big star on the opioid alternative horizon, could also have some pretty alarming side effects. In contrast to the opioids for sale now, which usually come with constipation, withdrawal side effects, and addictive tendencies, this new structure could cause hallucinations, feelings of unease, and more unknowns.
Opioid Alternative – The Long Term Goal
Unlike other opioid medications, the researchers in charge of developing and studying the Kappa Opioid receptor, and eventually marketing it as a non-addictive opioid alternative, don’t plan to release it anytime soon.
As of right now, the plan is to continue research and development of the protein structure, to study any manipulating techniques that would wipe out any hallucinations or dysphoria. They plan to do this by creating molecules for future drugs that would interact with only the kappa receptor, and experiment on how those molecules and the receptor affect the brain and body.
“We basically solved the structure and then we are able to take medications that have the signaling properties that we desired,” reports Roth.
So far, the research has not been performed on any humans and is still being studied on cell cultures. Bryan Roth reported that it would be at least a few years before any of these opioid alternatives would be available to patients.
For people who are struggling with pain management, and who have decided to abstain from opioid pills, there are a variety of holistic pain management techniques for people with acute or non-crippling pain.
- Acupuncture – has been around for thousands of years, and is now covered by most insurance plans
- According to the American Journal of Emergency Medicine, a study of 300 people with acute pain was performed, comparing acupuncture to a morphine IV. Not only was the pain relieved faster for the patients receiving acupuncture, but only 2.6% had adverse reactions, whereas 56.6% of the morphine patients had withdrawal effects.
- Acupuncture causes no long-term damage and also encourages the body to heal itself. It can even be used to ease the opioid withdrawal process.
- Physical Therapy – offices of physical therapists have popped up in almost every corner of the country over the last decade, and is also covered by most insurance plans
- The benefit of physical therapy is that it uses a variety of techniques to strengthen and retrain the part of the body that is in pain, usually from an injury.
- This often looks like massages, electric signal therapy, and mild exercise.
- Herbs – For thousands of years, people have been using natural herbs as remedies for every ache, pain, and illness.
- Valerian root, also known as “Nature’s Tranquilizer”, helps relieve insomnia, tension, stress, and anxiety, which often translates into the common body aches, muscle pains, and headaches we get today.
- Magnesium is known to help relieve pains from migraines, muscle spasms, and fibromyalgia.
- Capsaicin is a chemical found in chili peppers and is known to reduce joint, nerve, and muscle pain by blocking pain signals to the brain.
- Turmeric is widely known to reduce and stop inflammation and is also widely believed to have anti-cancer properties.
- Healthy Eating – Research has shown that diets that anti-inflammatory can vastly reduce pain.
- Diets that are high in sugars, unhealthy fats, dairy products, and processed flour often create excess inflammation in the body.
- Inflammation is the result of the body trying to “purify” itself, according to the Cleveland Clinic, so a diet low in inflammatory foods can greatly reduce inflammation and pain.
- They recommend eating eight to nine servings of vegetables a day, limiting dairy products and red meat, and substituting instead, fish, beans, and whole grains such as quinoa, brown rice, rye, wheat, and oats.
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