In 2017, a record 72,000 people died of drug overdoses, with at least two‑thirds of those deaths linked to opioids. Much of the nation’s flourishing use of opioids is linked to the abundant prescription of opioid painkillers. Indeed, most people treated for opioid addiction started on painkillers.
Numerous Washington State University researchers are working on the various aspects of the opioid crisis, including its relationship to persistent pain as well as the promise and pitfalls of different therapies.
Hyperbaric oxygen treatment to relieve pain
Several researchers are looking at the potential role hyperbaric oxygen — pure oxygen in a high‑pressure chamber — as a new, safe and cost-effective approach to treating opioid addiction, treatment and withdrawal.
Raymond Quock has seen how morphine-addicted mice have far less severe withdrawal symptoms than addicted mice that did not receive the treatment. He has recently made a key discovery in why this happens, finding that the pain-relieving effects of hyperbaric oxygen depend on nitric oxide in the central nervous system. He is also part of a team conducting a clinical trial testing hyperbaric oxygen treatment on patients reducing their methadone. Early feedback from participants has been “almost entirely positive including the belief the treatment helped withdrawal symptoms, pain, sleep, and mood.”
- Raymond Quock, pharmacologist and WSU psychology professor, 509‑335‑5529, email@example.com
Improving the availability of treatment
Two researchers are leading efforts to improve the availability of medication-assisted treatment facilities, which address opioid issues with behavioral modification and medications like methadone and buprenorphine. In general, the facilities are falling short of the demand for them and their availability varies widely around the state. Solmaz Amiri, a postdoc in the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine, is identifying areas with limited access to treatment facilities and relating access to years of life lost to premature death. Elizabeth Wood, an assistant professor in the college, is developing a free, easy‑to‑use, and centralized resource for up‑to‑date statistics about where facilities are located and how they are used.
The interaction of cannabis and opioids
Cannabis and opioids are metabolized by many of the same liver enzymes, potentially influencing each other’s effects. Philip Lazarus hopes to learn more about these processes, informing how cannabis fits into the public health crisis surrounding opioid overdose and opioid use disorder; provide a baseline understanding of how cannabis is metabolized, and how that influences liver function in patients currently taking opioids.
- Philip Lazarus, professor and chair of pharmacy, 509‑358‑7947, firstname.lastname@example.org
Adults with disabilities face a higher risk of opioid misuse
Jae Kennedy, a professor of health policy and administration, has found that adults with disabilities are significantly more likely to abuse prescription pain medication and twice as likely to use heroin. Few get treatment. Their high risk of opioid abuse in due in part to the high prevalence of persistent pain among them.
- Jae Kennedy, a professor and chair of health policy and administration, 509‑368‑6971, email@example.com
Chronic pain remains the same or gets better after stopping opioid treatment
Stopping long‑term opioid treatment does not make chronic, non‑cancer‑related pain worse and, in some cases, makes it better. Sterling McPherson’s research could help medical practitioners identify effective alternative treatments to opioids.
- Sterling McPherson, associate professor and director for biostatistics and clinical trial design at the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine, 509‑324‑7459, firstname.lastname@example.org
Living with pain
Marian Wilson, an assistant professor in the College of Nursing, has documented the “complex and tumultuous” narrative of a person with an opioid‑use disorder: persistent pain, opioid use, addiction and, finally, medication-assisted treatment, all in a quest to “feel normal.”
- Marian Wilson, assistant professor, WSU College of Nursing, 509‑324‑7443, email@example.com