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Effective Nerve Blocks Might Be The Answer To Opioid Abuse

Ann Thompson
Jun-Ming Zhang, MD, is trying to find the ideal time to give patients nerve blocks. Effective nerve blocks could decrease the dependence on opioids later.

As opioid abuse skyrockets out of control, University of Cincinnati Health researchers are trying to zero in on fresh alternatives for the estimated 100 million people who suffer from chronic pain.

Principal investigator of a $1.95 million federal grant, Jun-Ming Zhang, MD, is studying the roles of the  nervous system and immune system in preclinical models of back and neuropathic pain.

Scientists have discovered in some cases when a nerve block is given too late it doesn't work and patients turn to long-term use of drugs such as Percocet and Vicodin.

Zhang wants to determine the best dosage and timing for the nerve blocks. He's encouraged by a German study of 200 patients who were given a prolonged nerve block instead of a single injection. Zhang says patients got 100 percent pain relief.

Doctors say if patients wait three to six months to get a nerve block for pain there is a poor response.

UC Health anesthesiologist and pain management assistant professor Dr. James Fortman will partner with Zhang when the research reaches clinical trials. He says it’s appropriate to be on pain meds short term.

Credit UC Health
UC Health Anesthesiologist and pain management Dr. James Fortman will partner with Zhang when the research reaches clinic trials. Monthly he leads a panel discussion to educate family doctors about the dangers of long-term opioid use.

"What’s inappropriate is to say you should be on this for the next 10 years. You don’t need that because your ankle was broken. Instead, you need the medications for that first few months, get you through your physical therapy. Let’s slowly wean those medications down to a much lower level or completely off and that’s how we’re going to be able to hopefully turn the tide.”

In the meantime, he is doing his part to help solve the opioid problem. Monthly he leads a panel discussion to educate family doctors and every few months talks to hospital residents.

Fortman says the statistics are staggering when it comes to opioid abuse. From 1999 to 2007 in Ohio, unintentional drug poisonings increased 300 percent. The number of Americans suffering from chronic pain is estimated to be 100-million. Statistics show it costs society 6,000 to 14,000 for each person addicted to opioids. Only one in 20-thousand patients have a doctor specializing in pain management.

With more than 30 years of journalism experience in the Greater Cincinnati market, Ann Thompson brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to her reporting. She has reported for WKRC, WCKY, WHIO-TV, Metro Networks and CBS/ABC Radio. Her work has been recognized by the Associated Press and the Society of Professional Journalists. In 2019 and 2011 A-P named her “Best Reporter” for large market radio in Ohio. She has won awards from the Association of Women in Communications and the Alliance for Women in Media. Ann reports regularly on science and technology in Focus on Technology.