Review Article| Volume 59, SUPPLEMENT 1, S9-S15, October 2010

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The role of corticosteroids and stress in chronic pain conditions


      The relationship between corticosteroids (endogenous and exogenous) and stress is well known, as is the use of steroids as concomitant treatment in pain management during acute inflammation. In the past, steroids have not been considered the first line of treatment in pain management. In this review, we examine new scientific and clinical evidence that demonstrates the direct role that steroids play in the generation and clinical management of chronic pain. We will discuss the new findings demonstrating the fact that steroids and related mediators produce paradoxical effects on pain such as analgesia, hyperalgesia, and even placebo analgesia. In addition, we will examine the physiologic effect of stress, high allostatic load, and idiopathic disease states such as chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, and burnout. The recently observed positive relationship between glutaminergic activity in the insula and clinical pain will be examined in the context of understanding the central role of steroids in chronic pain. The complex role of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis in pain will be discussed as well as other heterogeneous forms of chronic pain that involve many components of the central nervous system. Components of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis have paradoxical effects on certain types of pain that are dependent on dose and on site (whether peripheral or central) and mode of application. Recent studies on glia have shown that they prolong a state of neuronal hypersensitization in the dorsal root ganglia by releasing growth factors and other substances that act on the immune system. We will discuss the implication of these new findings directly linking pain to steroids, stress, and key higher brain regions in the context of future therapeutic targets.
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