New local study on jaw pain may help replace opioids with safer pain medication

UT Health San Antonio one of five institutions granted this money for research

SAN ANTONIO - – Many pain conditions and traumas force the need for opioid painkillers, so the government is funding five studies across the nation to create non-opioid medicines for specific types of joint and muscle pain.

“Eighty percent of drug abuse over for heroin, especially in cocaine — they actually started from painkillers,” said Dr. Armen Akopian, a professor of endodontics at UT Health San Antonio.

One type of persistent and debilitating pain that typically warrants medication is jaw pain.

“It is very common. It’s, I think, counted the number four or five of overall pain conditions,” Akopian said.

Akopian has studied pain for decades and is now leading a new study funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for $9.8 million to help speed up scientific solutions to stem the national opioid public health crisis.

His team will research jaw pain in humans and eventually spur the creation of non-opioid treatments.

“It’s a big, big deal,” he said, explaining studies on humans have not been accomplished yet in this space.

They’ll be performing jaw replacement surgeries and collecting muscle tissue to study.

Once they collect the tissue, they will use machines with needle-like instruments to poke the cells and see what type of reaction they have.

Researchers can then watch the movement and intensity with graphs and luminous pictures of the muscle, tendons and nerves.

“Compare what is in a person without pain and with pain,” Akopian explained.

The information the researchers gather will hopefully help other teams create a safer drug to quell jaw pain.

“We are always confident, but that not only depends on us. It’s a long procedure,” Akopian said.

Developing a drug to fruition could take 10 or even 25 years.

Still, scientists and the government alike believe it could save lives. So the money and time invested will be worth it.

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About the Authors

Courtney Friedman anchors KSAT’s weekend evening shows and reports during the week. Her ongoing Loving in Fear series confronts Bexar County’s domestic violence epidemic. She joined KSAT in 2014 and is proud to call the SA and South Texas community home. She came to San Antonio from KYTX CBS 19 in Tyler, where she also anchored & reported.

Before starting at KSAT in August 2011, Ken was a news photographer at KENS. Before that he was a news photographer at KVDA TV in San Antonio. Ken graduated from San Antonio College with an associate's degree in Radio, TV and Film. Ken has won a Sun Coast Emmy and four Lone Star Emmys. Ken has been in the TV industry since 1994.

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