The Science of Addiction Through the Lens of Opioid Treatment for Chronic Noncancer Pain

Pain Manag Nurs. 2020 Feb;21(1):57-64. doi: 10.1016/j.pmn.2019.09.001. Epub 2019 Oct 9.


Addiction is a chronic, relapsing brain disease. It is not the same as physical dependence (i.e., withdrawal) and tolerance, but is characterized by loss of control over the use of the substance, continued use despite consequences, compulsive use, and cravings. Addiction involves functional changes to brain pathways involved in reward, stress and learning, and these changes can last a long time after the addictive substance is no longer used. Repeated interruption of normal brain function from repetitive use of addictive substances can hijack normal reward mechanisms resulting in fundamental alterations in brain structure and function. Over time, addictive substances can bring about a false fixed prediction error that cannot be rectified during learning. And, for individuals who develop an addiction, initial impulsive drug use progresses to compulsive drug use and this progression also has neurobiological underpinnings. Drug addiction is partly heritable, although there is no single gene coding specifically for the disease of addiction. Genetic factors contribute to a vulnerability to develop both addiction and addiction comorbidities, and play an appreciable role in responses to and metabolism of addictive substances, and most likely, the experience of rewarding effects. Patients with pain who are addicted to opioids have, in addition to the pain disorder, a chronic relapsing brain disease that can be life-threatening. Addiction can be treated and controlled, but not cured. Treatment of pain in individuals with addiction is a complex clinical challenge. Holistic assessment, interprofessional approaches, use of established guidelines, and non-pharmacological complementary modalities are needed.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Addiction Medicine / methods*
  • Addiction Medicine / trends
  • Analgesics, Opioid / therapeutic use*
  • Chronic Pain / drug therapy*
  • Chronic Pain / psychology
  • Humans


  • Analgesics, Opioid