New Research Highlights Developments in Non-Opioid Pain Relief

Opioid-based pain relief options have proven risks, primarily the addictive nature of such medications. Thankfully, researchers are developing what may be the first non-opioid pain relief solution that does not have side effects or addiction risk.

Doctor working in an office

Most Americans want to live pain-free lives, but such a goal is often impossible without risky health interventions like pharmaceutical opioid pain relievers. According to an October 2022 study, researchers are developing new substances that activate adrenalin receptors instead of opioid receptors. According to preliminary findings, the new intervention has a similar pain-relieving effect as opiates. Critically, the new substance does not have the negative aspects of opioid painkillers, such as respiratory depression and addiction.

What the Findings Show

A new research report published by Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg, one of the largest research universities in Germany, may have tapped into a previously unknown pain relief method that does not utilize opioids to provide lasting and patient-adjustable pain relief. Critically, the new substances developed by the researchers appear to have a similar pain-relieving effect to opiate pharmaceutical drugs but without negative aspects typical of opioids, such as respiratory depression, addiction, and withdrawal.1

But how are the researchers doing it? According to them, it’s all about addressing the adrenal receptors, not the opioid receptors. Prof. Dr. Peter Gmeiner, Chair of Pharmaceutical Chemistry, is one of these researchers. He commented on the importance of focusing on the receptors within the brain that interact with the medication. “We are focusing particularly on the molecular structures of the receptors that dock onto the pharmaceutical substances. Only when we understand these on the atomic level can we develop effective and safe active substances.” In 2016, Prof. Gmeiner discovered an active substance that bonds to known opioid receptors and offers the same pain relief as morphine, even though it has no chemical similarity to morphine.2

Adrenaline Receptors Instead of Opioid Receptors

The opioid receptors in the brain are the primary receptors involved in pain processing, hence why opioid painkillers are designed to target such receptors. However, other non-opioid receptors in the brain are all involved in pain processing, so the researchers turned their attention to a new receptor responsible for binding adrenaline. The receptor is called the “alpha 2A adrenergic receptor,” which handles pain signals. When patients take a pain reliever designed to target this receptor, findings show the patients experience pain relief without respiratory depression, overdose risk, addiction risk, and withdrawal associated with opioid painkillers.

Currently, the medication developed by the researchers has a powerful sedative effect and is only workable for in-hospital settings. But if the researchers can find a way to modify the substance so that it does not sedate the patient, they may create a new analgesic that treats all pain without harmful side effects.

While testing has not yet moved to human trials, the researchers were able to create pain reliever medication that addresses adrenaline receptors and which had an effective, pain-relieving outcome in animal studies. Again quoting Prof. Gmeiner, “Various tests confirmed that docking on the receptor was responsible for the analgesic effect. We are particularly pleased that none of the new compounds caused sedation, even at considerably higher doses than those required for pain relief.” There’s no doubt about it; the successful separation of pain-relieving properties and sedation in a drug that reduces pain without harmful side effects is a milestone in the development of non-opioid pain medication.

Prescription Opioid Addiction Risk

Doctor talks with a patient

While non-opioid pain relief medications may still be a few years out, the above research should be considered good news. The 21st-century opioid epidemic was primarily caused by the mass dispersal of opioid prescription painkillers to the public, causing millions to suffer.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an average of 44 people die each day from overdoses involving prescription opioids, totaling more than 16,000 deaths annually. Even though other opioids like fentanyl and synthetic opioids have played a significant role in the epidemic, prescription opioids were still involved in nearly 24% of all opioid overdose deaths in 2020. That figure represents a 16% increase in prescription opioid-involved deaths from 2019 to 2020.3

Today, opioid addiction is the most severe addiction-related crisis facing Americans. The CDC estimates opioid-related deaths have more than quintupled since 1999. Further, opioids are now responsible for the overwhelming majority of drug-related deaths in the United States. Nearly 75% of the 91,799 overdose deaths in 2020 involved an opioid.4

The Need for Health Interventions That Don’t Create Addiction

Americans deserve health interventions that do not cause them to become addicted to a drug intended to help them. Hopefully, researchers will continue progressing on a pain reliever with the same pain-relieving potential as opioids but without addiction risk. In the meantime, those who struggle with opioid addiction must be helped as soon as possible. If you know someone who started taking painkillers and became addicted, please get in touch with a qualified residential treatment center as soon as possible.


  1. Science. “Structure-based discovery of non-opioid analgesics acting through the α2A-adrenergic receptor.” Science, 2022. ↩︎

  2. ScienceDaily. “Pain relief without side effects and addiction.” Science Daily, 2022. ↩︎

  3. CDC. “Prescription Opioid Overdose Death Maps.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2022. ↩︎

  4. CDC. “Understanding the Epidemic.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2022. ↩︎


After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective …
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