Sister Morphine

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Stuart Bradford /

Ultimately, excruciating but finite pain like that of childbirth is mostly tolerable (which explains why every mother doesn’t stop after her first child), but even mild chronic pain weighs on the spirit–and, neuroscientists have found, on the mind. Constant loud ringing in the ear, recurrent bladder infections, an ever-present ache in the mid-back all have the potential to change the function and even shape of the brain.

According to Science News (June 18, 2011), researchers at Montreal’s McGill University looked at a series of brain scans and found that people who suffered through a year of chronic back pain actually experienced a thinning of the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. As a result, activity in this brain region–which is linked directly to pain response–was both altered and abnormal.

In addition, the researchers found that morphine can be used not only to treat pain, but also to help rehabilitate the brain. A six-month treatment of the painkiller relieved the nonstop backache–and spurred thickening in the dorsolateral prefrontal region.

This news will gratify the journalism students and professors at the University of British Columbia who created the 2011 documentary Freedom from Pain, which, according to The Tyee (July 20, 2011), exposed the appalling lack of access to morphine in half the world. Led by Peter Klein, director of UBC’s journalism school and former 60 Minutes producer, the film exposes a global human rights crisis born out of “cultural bias, overzealous drug warriors, and lack of education.” It’s not cost that keeps morphine away from cancer patients in parts of India or Ukraine; it’s bureaucratic red tape and ignorance.

UBC graduate Robyn Smith explains that, in some regions, “narcotics laws are so strict that doctors fear prescribing it, and patients literally scream for relief.” In other regions, morphine treatment “is halted by outdated, Soviet-style bureaucracy [and] arbitrary limits on doses.” Fortunately, there is hope. Some countries, including war-torn Uganda, serve as models of painkiller awareness and accessibility. And, happily, advocates are now armed with the latest evidence that pain relief isn’t just a nicety for the chronically ill–it’s an essential part of repairing their bodies and their brains.

Have something to say? Send a letter to This article first appeared in the November-December 2011 issue of Utne Reader.

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