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04-29 Study finds link between opiate medications and depression

Study finds link between opiate medications and depression

The worst thing about chronic pain is that it’s private. Outwardly, a person looks fine: There’s no blood, no exposed bones, so what are they complaining about?

Pain associated with injury or painful conditions like toothaches is acute pain. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), acute pain acts as a warning, alerting a person to injury or a need to seek care. Chronic pain’s different. For one thing, it doesn’t go away.

Chronic pain is associated with a wide variety of conditions. It can come from diseases like arthritis or cancer. Neurogenic pain comes from damage to peripheral nerves or the central nervous system. Psychogenic pain is a type of pain coming from psychological factors. NINDS also warns that people can have co-existing pain conditions.

Naturally, chronic pain can negatively impact people’s lives, causing serious complications if left untreated. Powerful opiate painkillers are often prescribed to patients with chronic pain. Although these drugs come with certain risks, the National Institutes of Health says that opiate painkillers manage pain safely and effectively when used for a short period of time.

Unfortunately, a new study has discovered they may have a new complication: depression.

Depression a risk after 30 days of use

Researchers from Saint Louis University examined three large groups of patient data taken from the Veterans Health Administration, Baylor Scott & White Health and the Henry Ford Health System. The patients were aged 18 to 80 and had no diagnosis of depression when they started taking opioid medication. Drugs used by the patients included oxycodone, fentanyl and codeine.

The data revealed that a sizeable percentages of the patients reported having new symptoms of depression after using opiate medications, regardless of the strength of dose. The risk of developing depression was greater in those who used opiates for longer than 30 days.

“Opioid-related new onset of depression is associated with longer duration of use but not dose,” lead study author Jeffrey Scherrer, Ph.D., said in a St. Louis University press release. “Patients and practitioners should be aware that opioid analgesic use of longer than 30 days imposes risk of new-onset depression.”

Although chronic pain can certainly cause depression, the study found a link between opiates and depression even after taking chronic pain into account.

Alternatives to narcotic pain management

The American Psychological Association (APA) offers several tops to managing chronic pain without drugs:

  • Stress management: the APA says that physical and emotional pain are closely related. Finding healthy ways to manage stress, getting plenty of sleep and exercise, and eating well can reduce stress and pain.
  • Think positively: Focusing on improvements helps. Rather than feeling helpless in the face of your pain, remind yourself that despite being uncomfortable you are constantly working to find healthy, effective ways to deal with pain.
  • Staying active: Isolation can make pain perception worse. Keeping busy and involved can distract a person from their pain.
  • Find support: There are many support groups for people in chronic pain, and are good ways to share coping strategies – and find new ones.
  • Seek help: Mental health professionals can help with both mental and physical aspects of pain.

Depression and addiction are serious health concerns, but they respond to treatment. Sovereign Health’s Rancho San Diego facility in a rural setting near San Diego offers effective, personalized help in a residential setting to adolescents aged 12 to 17. Our staff of compassionate experts work with their patients to ensure they both live up to their full potential, and achieve a lasting recovery. For more information, please call our 24/7 helpline.

About the author

Brian Moore is a staff writer and graphic designer for the Sovereign Health Group. A 20-year veteran of the newspaper industry, he writes articles and creates graphics across Sovereign’s portfolio of marketing and content products. Brian enjoys music, bicycling and playing the tuba, which’s he’s done with varying degrees of success for over 25 years. For more information and other inquiries about this media, contact the author and designer at

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