Tummy tucks really hurt. Doctors carve from hip to hip, slicing off skin, tightening muscles, tugging at innards. Patients often need strong painkillers for days or even weeks, but Mary Hernandez went home on just over-the-counter ibuprofen.
The reason may be the yellowish goo smeared on her 18-inch wound as she lay on the operating table. The Houston woman was helping test a novel medicine aimed at avoiding opioids, potent pain relievers fueling an epidemic of overuse and addiction.
Vicodin, OxyContin and similar drugs are widely used for bad backs, severe arthritis, damaged nerves and other woes. They work powerfully in brain areas that control pleasure and pain, but the body adapts to them quickly, so people need higher and higher doses to get relief.
This growing dependence on opioids has mushroomed into a national health crisis, ripping apart communities and straining police and health departments. Every day, an overdose of prescription opioids or heroin kills 91 people, and legions more are brought back from the brink of death. With some 2 million Americans hooked on these pills, evidence is growing that they’re not as good a choice for treating chronic pain as once thought.
Drug companies are working on alternatives, but have had little success.
Twenty or so years ago, they invested heavily and “failed miserably,” said Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Pain is a pain to research. Some people bear more than others, and success can’t be measured as objectively as it can be with medicines that shrink a tumor or clear an infection. Some new pain drugs that worked well were doomed by side effects – Vioxx, for instance, helped arthritis but hurt hearts.
Some fresh approaches are giving hope:
-“Bespoke” drugs, as Volkow calls them. These target specific pathways and types of pain rather than acting broadly in the brain. One is Enbrel, which treats a key feature of rheumatoid arthritis and, in the process, eases pain.
-Drugs to prevent the need for opioids. One that Hernandez was helping test numbs a wound for a few days and curbs inflammation. If people don’t have big pain after surgery, their nerves don’t go on high alert and there’s less chance of developing chronic pain that might require opioids.
-Funky new sources for medicines. In testing: Drugs from silk, hot chili peppers and the venom of snakes, snails and other critters.
-Novel uses for existing drugs. Some seizure and depression medicines, for example, can help some types of pain.
The biggest need, however, is for completely new medicines that can be used by lots of people for lots of problems. These also pose the most risk – for companies and patients alike.