Decreased nociceptive sensitivity: a biological risk marker for opiate dependence?


Michael Lehofer, MD, PhD, Department of Psychiatry, University of Graz, Auenbruggerplatz 22, A-8036 Graz, Austria.


In recent studies using a cold pressor tea we could show that former opiate addicts are persistently less pain-sensitive than healthy controls, indicating a neurophysiologic dysfunction in these patients. In the present study we addressed the issue of whether this dysfunction was caused by the drug abuse or already existed prior to the heroin addiction, and whether it ii restricted to pain sensitivity or affects somatosensory or nociceptive sensitivity in general. After validating the method we obtained retrospective ratings for the pain, cold and warmth sensitivity for the time before addiction, during addiction and during detoxification. Ex-addicts perceive themselves less pain- and cold-sensitive than healthy controls, and no difference was detectable between the pre-addiction and the rehabilitation ratings, although nociceptive sensitivity is highly increased during detoxification. Warmth sensitivity was not different to healthy controls and was not affected by drug withdrawal. Our findings suggest that a decreased nociceptive sensitivity may already precede opiate addiction pointing to physiological dysfunctions in heroin pre-addicts.