Chronic Pain, Opioid Use, and Epidermal Nerve Fiber Density (COED)

  • participants needed
  • sponsor
    University of Kansas Medical Center
Updated on 8 February 2023
chronic pain
cancer pain
Accepts healthy volunteers


This pilot study is being performed to examine whether epidermal axons are altered in patients taking opioid therapy for chronic non-cancer pain, and if epidermal axonal changes predict heightened pain sensitivity.


Currently, 1 in 25 adults in the USA regularly uses prescription opioids. Now described as a healthcare crisis, increased prescription opioid use is linked with greater healthcare utilization and its associated negative costs. Prescription opioid use leads to increased mortality due to unintentional overdose, misuse and abuse, transition into illicit opioid use, decreased pain thresholds, and widespread neuropathic pain. In addition, opioid- induced hyperalgesia is a dangerous and paradoxical condition wherein patients on opioids develop increased super- heightened pain. In the USA, the increase in prescription opioid use has followed a similar trajectory of the incidence of overdose due to prescription and illicit opioids. Sadly, even with this drastic escalation in opioid use, there has been no change in the rate or severity of chronic pain conditions.

Quantitative analysis of cutaneous innervation of the epidermis provides an indication of the health of peripheral sensory axons. Studies in various pain conditions (e.g., painful diabetic neuropathy, painful chemotherapy-induced neuropathy, and fibromyalgia) suggest changes in epidermal innervation may underlie pain in the feet and hands. Our preclinical studies reveal that changes in epidermal axons play a key role in the development of pain. Here, we postulate that chronic opioid use in patients with chronic pain due to non- cancer conditions 1) contributes to detrimental changes in epidermal axons, 2) works against pain-relieving actions of opioids to reduce pain, and 3) is possibly linked to opioid-induced hyperalgesia.

Our short-term goals are to determine if epidermal axons are altered in patients taking opioid therapy for chronic non-cancer pain, and if epidermal axonal changes predict heightened pain sensitivity. This pilot study will test whether changes in epidermal axons are "dose-dependent" in patients taking low-dose, moderate-dose, or high-dose opioid therapy. Our long-term goals will determine whether dose-reduction or cessation of opioids can reverse axonal changes, or whether these adverse chances can be prevented with other medications. Our central hypothesis is that patients on opioid therapy for chronic non-cancer pain will exhibit elevated epidermal axon densities, and these elevations are accompanied with hyperalgesia and allodynia.

Aim 1: Do patients on long-term opioid therapy have abnormal intraepidermal nerve fiber (IENF) density? We hypothesize that patients taking chronic opioids for non-cancer pain conditions will exhibit abnormal epidermal nerve fiber density compared to chronic pain patients not taking opioid therapy and healthy controls. We will recruit 20 patients with chronic pain due to non-cancer conditions on opioid therapy, 20 patients with chronic pain not taking opioid therapy, and 20 healthy controls and perform a skin biopsy on the ankle. The skin biopsy will then be assessed to ascertain IENF density and compared to normative density values for sex and age. Next, we will compare quantitative measurements of IENF density to total daily oral morphine equivalents (OME) taken by the patients. We hypothesize that higher daily opioid consumption will correlate with abnormalities in epidermal innervation.

Aim 2: Do patients on long-term opioid therapy have heightened cutaneous pain sensitivity that correlates with IENF density? We will perform quantitative sensory testing (QST) in all patient cohorts to objectively assess pain sensitivity. Patients will undergo QST for pressure pain threshold, temporal summation, and conditioned pain modulation. We will determine whether heightened pain sensitivity, as evidenced by reduced pressure pain thresholds, increased temporal summation, and reduced conditioned pain modulation, is associated with altered IENF from skin biopsies. We hypothesize that heightened pain sensitivity will correlate with reductions in epidermal innervation and that higher daily opioid consumption in chronic pain patients will correlate with abnormalities in epidermal innervation and altered QST parameters.

Condition Chronic Pain, Opioid Use, Nerve Disorders
Clinical Study IdentifierNCT04801498
SponsorUniversity of Kansas Medical Center
Last Modified on8 February 2023

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