YOUR HEALTH: Studying chronic pain and opioid abuse

BOCA RATON, Florida – Today, surfing is a great passion of James Fata, but earlier in his life was something else.

"I tried my first drug at the age of 12, and then I quickly progressed to the one I liked the most, which was opiates."

Like millions of Americans, James liked the way the pills made him feel.

"It numbed all the anxiety and negative emotions that were always in me."

Every day, more than 115 people in the United States die after overdosing on opioids. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the total "economic burden" of prescription opioid misuse alone in the United States is $78.5 billion a year, including the costs of healthcare, lost productivity, addiction treatment, and criminal justice involvement.

Janet Robishaw says the overprescribing of painkillers like vicodin and oxycontin has led to a condition called opioid use disorder.

"This is a chronic relapsing disease that they're going to have for the rest of their life," said Robishaw, who is the Senior Associate Dean for Research and the Chair of Biomedical Sciences at the Charles E. Schmidt College of Medicine at Florida Atlantic University.

The "Support for Patients and Communities Act", signed by President Donald Trump, is designed to stop illegal drugs at the border and it establishes supports for other treatments, recovery and prevention.

Robishaw and her team at Florida Atlantic University wanted to know if some people were at a higher risk of developing an addiction to opioids, so they studied the genes of 25 thousand chronic pain patients.

"About 20% of the patients clearly showed that they've gone on to show signs that they're developing an addiction."

Robishaw says the goal of the study is to create an "addiction risk score" to help doctors better assess patients.

"If we could identify the 20% of patients ahead of time that are at high risk of developing addiction we will not prescribe those patients opioids."

NEW RESEARCH:   The genome-wide association study will help the researchers determine if there is a particular subset of genes and genetic variants that may make people more susceptible to becoming addicted to prescription opioids.   Once they are able to generate the hypothesis that a gene is responsible for increasing risk, the next steps for research will involve functional studies on those top associations to prove a cause.

After years of relapsing, James got clean thanks to treatment.   He believes genetics may have played a role in his addiction.

"How the results could have been different if I were to have seen somebody and been assessed."

If this story has impacted your life or prompted you or someone you know to seek or change treatments, please let us know by contacting Jim Mertens at jim.mertens@wqad.com or Marjorie Bekaert Thomas at mthomas@ivanhoe.com.