$1.4 million research grant puts opioid addiction in focus

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A series of digital videos aimed at curbing opioid addiction has received a $1.4 million research grant.

It was one of 12 University of Otago projects to receive funding from the Health Research Council, totaling $3.1 million.

Lead researcher Dr Hemakumar Devan said the project would share personal stories from Māori patients who had struggled to wean off prescription opioids.

He called the project a “whanau-targeted opioid weaning intervention” for people with chronic pain.

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“Opioids are a group of drugs commonly used for pain relief,” Devan said. Common opioid medications include morphine and fentanyl.

“They’re quite effective in the short term, but with long-term use — more than six months — their pain-relieving effects wear off,” he said. “Instead, there is an opportunity to become more sensitive to pain and in some cases this can lead to dependence and addiction.”

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About one in five New Zealanders experienced chronic non-cancer pain, but Māori suffered the most, Devan said.

Māori was at the center of Devan’s research, but he hoped the results would benefit anyone with chronic pain.

“Currently there is no Aotearoa New Zealand trial to understand opioid tapering for chronic non-cancer pain,” he said. “This is a complex process because tapering is associated with withdrawal symptoms and people need ongoing support throughout their tapering process.”

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He hoped the videos would help patients talk to their practitioners and show them the experiences of people who had already gone through the process — including common barriers and factors they might encounter.

“Hearing from similar others during their tapering journeys allows patients to consider opioid tapering for themselves in a way that none of their previous clinical interactions have,” Devan said.