Is paradoxical pain induced by sustained opioid exposure an underlying mechanism of opioid antinociceptive tolerance?

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

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

162 Scopus citations


Opiates are the primary treatment for pain management in cancer patients reporting moderate to severe pain, and are being increasingly used for non-cancer chronic pain. However, prolonged administration of opiates is associated with significant problems including the development of antinociceptive tolerance, wherein higher doses of the drug are required over time to elicit the same amount of analgesia. High doses of opiates result in serious side effects such as constipation, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, somnolence, and impairment of mental alertness. In addition, sustained exposure to morphine has been shown to result in paradoxical pain in regions unaffected by the initial pain complaint, and which may also result in dose escalation, i.e. 'analgesic tolerance'. A concept that has been gaining considerable experimental validation is that prolonged use of opioids elicits paradoxical, abnormal pain. This enhanced pain state requires additional opioids to maintain a constant level of antinociception, and consequently may be interpreted as antinociceptive tolerance. Many substances have been shown to block or reverse antinociceptive tolerance. A non-inclusive list of examples of substances reported to block or reverse opioid antinociceptive tolerance include: substance P receptor (NK-1) antagonists, calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP) receptor antagonists, nitric oxide (NO) synthase inhibitors, calcium channel blockers, cyclooxygenase (COX) inhibitors, protein kinase C inhibitors, competitive and non-competitive antagonists of the NMDA (N-methyl-D-aspartate) receptor, AMPA (alpha-amino-3-hydroxy-5-methyl-4 isoxazolepropionic acid) antagonists, anti-dynorphin antiserum, and cholecystokinin (CCK) receptor antagonists. Without exception, these substances are also antagonists of pain-enhancing agents. Prolonged opiate administration indeed induces upregulation of substance P (SP) and calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP) within sensory fibers in vivo, and this is accompanied by an enhanced release of excitatory neurotransmitters and neuropeptides from primary afferent fibers upon stimulation. The enhanced evoked release of neuropeptides is correlated with the onset of abnormal pain states and opioid antinociceptive tolerance. Importantly, the descending pain modulatory pathway from the brainstem rostral ventromedial medulla (RVM) via the dorsolateral funiculus (DLF) is critical for maintaining the changes observed in the spinal cord, abnormal pain states and antinociceptive tolerance, because animals with lesion of the DLF did not show enhanced evoked neuropeptide release, or develop abnormal pain or antinociceptive tolerance upon sustained exposure to opiates. Microinjection of either lidocaine or a CCK antagonist into the RVM blocked both thermal and touch hypersensitivity as well as antinociceptive tolerance. Thus, prolonged opioid exposure enhances a descending pain facilitatory pathway from the RVM that is mediated at least in part by CCK activity and is essential for the maintenance of antinociceptive tolerance.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)194-205
Number of pages12
Issue number4
StatePublished - Oct 2005


  • Central sensitization
  • Cholecystokinin
  • Descending pain facilitation
  • Dynorphin
  • Hyperalgesia
  • Rostral ventromedial medulla

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neurology
  • Developmental Neuroscience
  • Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience


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