BIDDEFORD — Mikayla Bergquist started feeling shooting pains through her hands, legs and arms about five years ago, bad enough that some days she didn’t want to get out of bed and couldn’t practice the violin.

She was offered prescription opioids for pain relief but her mom, Ivy Bergquist, rejected them.

Mikayla’s mother works as a lab technician at the University of New England studying alternative therapies to opioids, and she wanted her daughter to stay away from the potent drugs – which are of questionable value for chronic pain treatment and carry addiction risks.

Mikayla was eventually diagnosed with Amplified Musculoskeletal Pain Syndrome, which magnifies the level of pain felt by the body, making what should be mild pain feel severe.

After seeing doctors at Boston Children’s Hospital, she was prescribed physical and behavioral therapy and taking anxiety medication.

“I’m experiencing very little or no pain now,” said the 17-year-old Thornton Academy senior, who plays violin, bass guitar, cello and ukulele. She plans to attend Bay State University in Massachusetts next year.


Mikayla told her story Wednesday at the University of New England’s Pain Summit, where leading scientists, advocates and government officials discussed pain treatment and its connection to the opioid epidemic.

Beginning in the late 1990s, the pharmaceutical industry heavily marketed opioids for treatment of pain and prescriptions increased dramatically. Now, overprescribing of opioids is contributing to abuse of heroin and other drugs in Maine and nationally, experts say. Four of five new heroin users started out using prescription opioids, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine.

In Maine, a record 272 people died from drug overdoses in 2015, most caused by heroin, prescription opioids or fentanyl, a powerful opioid sometimes mixed with heroin.

The Maine Legislature this year approved strict new prescribing rules for opioids that instituted a dosage cap and required doctors to use the state’s prescription monitoring program, which tracks patients so they can’t try to get multiple prescriptions through more than one doctor. Many of the 16,000 Maine patients with opioid prescriptions that exceed the state’s dosage cap will be weaned to lower doses by 2017.

Scientists and doctor are researching ways to alleviate pain that don’t rely on opioids. The University of New England has been using a five-year, $10 million federal grant to fund research into how the body regulates pain that could lead to new therapies. This research includes examining whether the immune system could be used to reduce pain, and even studying how fruit flies, which have similar genetics to humans, handle pain, said Dr. Ed Bilsky, vice president for research and scholarship at UNE. The grant is up for renewal in 2017.

While several pain specialists have told the Press Herald there is no proof that opioids are effective for chronic pain, Bilsky said there’s some research that indicates they might work in some cases.


“But the research is incomplete,” said Bilsky. Long-term research – following patients for longer than a few weeks or months – hasn’t been done in the United States.

Dr. Linda Porter, program director at the National Institutes of Health, who participated in one of the panel discussions at UNE on Wednesday, said the federal government plans to conduct long-term studies of opioid treatment and other therapies that could alleviate chronic pain.

The studies would be for one, two and five years, Porter said, and would be part of the NIH’s National Pain Strategy. Congress passed a bill addressing the opioid epidemic, but it included no new funding.

“Research, research and more research is a big part of our strategy,” Porter said. “We need to see if there are better pain management strategies. Everyone is saying we need to do something about this, but the question is when are we going to open up our purses and do it.”


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