The University of Manchester research team argue that, in the case of arthritis patients, the brain instinctively adds opiatereceptors all by itself in an attempt to silence the pain caused by this condition. The researchers were trying to better understand the underlining reasons why there appears to be variability in pain tolerance, which could provide insights for people dealing with chronic pain.
They found that patients with more opiatereceptors in their brains had an increased ability to withstand pain.
Having extra receptors made the body resistant to pain both by using our bodies' natural painkillers, endorphins, and through prescribed opiates such as morphine.
The study was small and more research is needed, but the finding suggests it may be worthwhile to look for future interventions that enhance natural defense mechanisms to pain.
Professor Wael El-Deredy, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at Manchester University, said: "Receptor imaging is challenging and requires the co-ordination of a large team to collect and analyse the images".
"This is very exciting because it changes the way we think about chronic pain", Anthony Jones, director of the Manchester Pain Consortium, said in the news release.
Chronic pain, such as what arthritis patients live with, is pain that persists continuously for six months or more. People who experience chronic pain often struggle to find effective treatment and can experience disability and even depression.
The study was published October 23 in the journal Pain.
With the discovery, it may be possible that a few simple interventions can further enhance this natural process, Jones said.
In turn, this could help manage chronic pain without relying heavily on drugs that can, in time, lead to serious side effects like addiction, scientist Christopher Brown and fellow researchers propose.
'The fact that this medication has to be increased from time to time concerns me greatly, due to the addictive nature of these drugs.
Arthritis patient Val Derbyshire said, "Anything that can reduce reliance on strong medication must be worth pursuing". Since then they have been found to have several different sub-types with different roles.