Opioid-induced hyperalgesia (OIH) is defined as a state of nociceptive sensitization caused by exposure to opioids. The condition is characterized by a paradoxical response whereby a patient receiving opioids for the treatment of pain could actually become more sensitive to certain painful stimuli. The type of pain experienced might be the same as the underlying pain or might be different from the original underlying pain. OIH appears to be a distinct, definable, and characteristic phenomenon that could explain loss of opioid efficacy in some patients.
Findings of the clinical prevalence of OIH are not available. However, several observational, cross-sectional, and prospective controlled trials have examined the expression and potential clinical significance of OIH in humans. Most studies have been conducted using several distinct cohorts and methodologies utilizing former opioid addicts on methadone maintenance therapy, perioperative exposure to opioids in patients undergoing surgery, and healthy human volunteers after acute opioid exposure using human experimental pain testing.
The precise molecular mechanism of OIH, while not yet understood, varies substantially in the basic science literature, as well as clinical medicine. It is generally thought to result from neuroplastic changes in the peripheral and central nervous system (CNS) that lead to sensitization of pronociceptive pathways. While there are many proposed mechanisms for OIH, 5 mechanisms involving the central glutaminergic system, spinal dynorphins, descending facilitation, genetic mechanisms, and decreased reuptake and enhanced nociceptive response have been described as the important mechanisms. Of these, the central glutaminergic system is considered the most common possibility. Another is the hypothesis that N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptors in OIH include activation, inhibition of the glutamate transporter system, facilitation of calcium regulated intracellular protein kinase C, and cross talk of neural mechanisms of pain and tolerance.
Clinicians should suspect OIH when opioid treatmentís effect seems to wane in the absence of disease progression, particularly if found in the context of unexplained pain reports or diffuse allodynia unassociated with the original pain, and increased levels of pain with increasing dosages. The treatment involves reducing the opioid dosage, tapering them off, or supplementation with NMDA receptor modulators.
This comprehensive review addresses terminology and definition, prevalence, the evidence for mechanism and physiology with analysis of various factors leading to OIH, and effective strategies for preventing, reversing, or managing OIH.