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Does Tramadol keep you from getting pregnant?

If you're having trouble getting pregnant, your regular prescription meds could be a factor.
If you're having trouble getting pregnant, your regular prescription meds could be a factor.
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While we may find ourselves reaching for over-the-counter pain relievers to counteract the pain of a pulled muscle or a tension headache, chronic pain sufferers experience persistent, debilitating pain. Pain that sticks around for the long-haul, more than six months and sometimes with no end in sight. Headaches, back pain, joint pain (such as arthritis pain) and injuries all may cause chronic pain, but for some people, there is no discernible reason at all [source: WebMD]. And it's estimated that as many as 50 million Americans live with chronic pain [source: Christo].

One of the most common ways to manage chronic pain is with a prescription for opiates.

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Prescription opiates are analgesics, strong pain relievers that contain opium or an opium-derivative (natural and man-made opiates are also called opioids). You may recognize some of these drugs: Morphine, codeine and methadone are all opioids, as are the drugs Oxycontin, Vicodin and Percocet. Tramadol (also known as Ultram) is also a narcotic analgesic -- a synthetic opiate agonist -- used to relieve moderate to moderately-severe pain. It works like morphine, blocking how the body perceives and communicates information about pain.

Opioid medicines are proven to be effective for relieving pain, and are commonly prescribed after surgery and to relieve chronic pain. They work by binding to special receptors in our body, enabling them to block how our brain recognizes and interprets pain. But opioids don't come without side effects. Chronic pain sufferers who take opioid medications are at risk for nausea and constipation (two common complaints), dizziness, drowsiness or sedation, euphoria, vomiting, itching (pruritus) and breathing problems, as well as physical dependency and addiction.

What you might not know about opiate analgesics, though, is that with long-term usage, the risk of additional side effects increases, including the possibility of impairing fertility. Why may long-term usage of opioids make it difficult for some people to become pregnant? Opioid receptors and something called the HPG axis. We'll talk about them both, next.

Opioid medications do their job well, and they do so by turning on something called our opioid receptors, which are found in the brain as well as in the gastrointestinal tract and spinal cord. The opioid receptors help signal and communicate about pain in the body, and both the opiate-like substances our body makes itself (endogenously-produced opioids) and the pills we take (exogenously-administered opiates) activate these receptors.

However, what happens when the body's opioid receptors deal with long-term exposure to opioid agonists? Hormone levels begin to fall out of balance, with decreased levels of sex hormones including testosterone and estrogen, cortisol and dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate (DHEAS) circulating throughout the body. This is what recent research calls opioid-induced endocrinopathy.

Emerging research is finding that opioid usage begins to take a toll on the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal (HPG) axis, causing it to malfunction. What happens is that opioids bind themselves to opioid receptors in the body, and those that bind themselves in the brain (the hypothalamus) disrupt how the body produces and manages sex hormones (and the verdict is still out how the other two receptors play a role in this). The way things are supposed to work goes like this: The hypothalamus produces gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH), which triggers the pituitary gland to produce a luteinizing hormone (LH) and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH). LH and FSH trigger the reproductive organs to produce estrogen (in women) and testosterone (in men) -- this is the HPG axis at work. If the HPG axis isn't functioning properly, the results can mean big changes inside the body, including changes that may lead to opioid-induced hypogonadism, sluggish libido, irregular menstruation in women, erectile dysfunction in men, and both female and male infertility, among other problems [sources: Ballantyne, Sigman].

While the affects of opioids on fertility are not yet fully understood, current research suggests long-term opioid usage, including the use of prescription drugs such as Tramadol, may play a role in both male and female fertility.

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Sources

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  • Ballantyne, Jane C. "Opioid Analgesia: Perspectives on Right Use and Utility." Pain Physician. Vol. 10. Pages 479-491. 2007. (July 13, 2012) http://www.painphysicianjournal.com/2007/may/2007;10;479-481.pdf
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