Opioids prescribed to manage pain could be taking a toll on proper wound healing.

Over the last several years, there has been an increase in the use of opioids to treat pain. Unfortunately, many patients have become addicted to these prescription painkillers, an issue that has led the Commission for Case Manager Certification to label the situation as an opioid pandemic. According to the National Institutes of Health, 2.1 million Americans struggle with substance-use issues related to these prescription drugs. And as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explained, this abuse has proved costly: Between 1999 and 2014, over 165,000 people died from overdoses to prescription opioids. New research shows these drugs could be placing an additional burden on patients who are currently receiving treatments for wound healing.

The Connection Between Opioids and Wounds

As part of a recent study published in the journal Wound Repair and Regeneration, a team of scientists found that patients who never use opioids may have wounds that heal significantly faster. The team, which is headed by Victoria Shanmugam from George Washington University, explained that this is some of the first research exploring the link between wound healing and opioid usage.

To explore this dynamic, Shanmugam and her colleagues enrolled 450 subjects into something called the WE-HEAL biorepository. Here, participants had their wounds measured regularly, at which point the most pertinent data – including wound surface area, overall pain and longitudinal opioid exposure – were recorded and logged. Those patients who were never prescribed opioids had wounds that measured much smaller compared to those patients who had taken these drugs.

The research begs the question, “What about opioids might somehow impede wound healing?” In an accompanying press release, Shanmugam explained that it’s still too early in the GW team’s research to offer up a proper explanation. However, there may be some insight in similar studies performed in recent years.

In 2013, a group of researchers explored the intersection of opioid use and inflammation. Publishing their results in the journal Trends in Pharmacological Sciences, the scientists found that certain opioids may “modulate the inflammatory process,” and that can lead to slower or faster healing overall. Another study, published in 2012 in the journal Current Pharmaceutical Design, arrived at similar findings regarding inflammation and regular opioid consumption.

While the GW teams subsequent research efforts might find other factors involved, Shanmugam explained that this research will still lead to the development of new drug regimens that can improve overall wound care planning for patients everywhere.

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