Induction of pain facilitation by sustained opioid exposure: Relationship to opioid antinociceptive tolerance

Michael H. Ossipov, Josephine Lai, Todd W. Vanderah, Frank Porreca

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

126 Scopus citations


Opioid analgesics are frequently used for the long-term management of chronic pain states, including cancer pain. The prolonged use of opioids is associated with a requirement for increasing doses to manage pain at a consistent level, reflecting the phenomenon of analgesic tolerance. It is now becoming clearer that patients receiving long-term opioid therapy can develop unexpected abnormal pain. Such paradoxical opioid-induced pain, as well as tolerance to the antinociceptive actions of opioids, has been reliably measured in animals during the period of continuous opioid delivery. Several recent studies have demonstrated that such pain may be secondary to neuroplastic changes that result, in part, from an activation of descending pain facilitation mechanisms arising from the rostral ventromedial medulla (RVM). One mechanism which may mediate such pain facilitation is through the increased activity of CCK in the RVM. Secondary consequences from descending facilitation may be produced. For example, opioid-induced upregulation of spinal dynorphin levels seem to depend on intact descending pathways from the RVM reflecting spinal neuroplasticity secondary to changes at supraspinal levels. Increased expression of spinal dynorphin reflects a trophic action of sustained opioid exposure which promotes an increased pain state. Spinal dynorphin may promote pain, in part, by enhancing the evoked release of excitatory transmitters from primary afferents. In this regard, opioids also produce trophic actions by increasing CGRP expression in the dorsal root ganglia. Increased pain elicited by opioids is a critical factor in the behavioral manifestation of opioid tolerance as manipulations which block abnormal pain also block antinociceptive tolerance. Manipulations that have blocked enhanced pain and antinociceptive tolerance include reversible and permanent ablation of descending facilitation from the RVM. Thus, opioids elicit systems-level adaptations resulting in pain due to descending facilitation, upregulation of spinal dynorphin and enhanced release of excitatory transmitters from primary afferents. Adaptive changes produced by sustained opioid exposure including trophic effects to enhance pain transmitters suggest the need for careful evaluation of the consequences of long-term opioid administration to patients.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)783-800
Number of pages18
JournalLife Sciences
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 27 2003


  • Antinociceptive tolerance
  • CCK
  • Opioid
  • Pain
  • Rostral ventromedial medulla

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Pharmacology, Toxicology and Pharmaceutics
  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology


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