Key takeaways

An estimated 50 million U.S. adults suffer from chronic pain.

CU Boulder’s Linda Watkins studies pain and drugs of abuse, including opioids.

Watkins’ lab recently discovered taking opioids too early after surgery can actually magnify pain.

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An estimated 50 million U.S. adults suffer from chronic pain, according to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many turn to opioids and other painkillers as a way to reduce their pain.   

In this episode of the Brainwaves podcast, we learn about the opioid crisis and ways in which researchers are rethinking pain management. 

Linda Watkins, distinguished professor of psychology and behavioral neuroscience at CU Boulder, has spent her career studying pain and drugs of abuse. She knows the significant risks of opioid addiction and is well aware of other unwelcome side effects, including severe constipation and hormonal changes. 

Even worse, Watkins’ lab recently discovered that taking opiates too early after surgery can actually magnify pain:  

WATKINS: “If you give opiates early after trauma—early after surgery, for example—then you will actually make chronic pain worse and much longer lasting. It interacts with the pain itself and causes the whole chronic pain problem to become much worse.” 

BRAINWAVES’ LISA MARSHALL: “Your lab has also helped to discover another potential driver of chronic pain that was unexpected. Can you talk a little bit about that?”

WATKINS: “Originally, people always thought it was only neurons that were responsible for driving pain […] What we and other people discovered was that there are non-neuronal sources of pain. Your immune system contributes, your immune-like glial cells in the central nervous system contribute. And they are very important both in the creation and maintenance of chronic pain states.”

MARSHALL: “How are you using this information right now?”

WATKINS: “We’ve been focused on trying to find new ways to target those cells because none of the chronic pain drugs that are out there do that.”

As an alternative to opiates, Watkins’ team has developed a non-viral gene therapy now in human clinical trials targeting knee osteoarthritis.

This episode of Brainwaves also examines the mind’s role in perpetuating chronic pain. Yoni Ashar, a graduate student in neuroscience and clinical psychology, breaks down how our brains can trick us into feeling pain that isn’t there.

Full transcript

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