Treatment of severe chronic and acute pain in sickle cell disease (SCD) remains challenging due to the interdependence of pain and psychosocial modulation. We examined whether modulation of the descending pain pathway through an enriched diet and companionship could alleviate pain in transgenic sickle mice. Mechanical and thermal hyperalgesia were reduced significantly with enriched diet and/or companionship. Upon withdrawal of both conditions, analgesic effects observed prior to withdrawal were diminished. Serotonin (5-hydroxytryptamine, 5-HT) was found to be increased in the spinal cords of mice provided both treatments. Additionally, 5-HT production improved at the rostral ventromedial medulla and 5-HT accumulated at the dorsal horn of the spinal cord of sickle mice, suggesting the involvement of the descending pain pathway in the analgesic response. Modulation of 5-HT and its effect on hyperalgesia was also investigated through pharmaceutical approaches. Duloxetine, a serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor, showed a similar anti-nociceptive effect as the combination of diet and companionship. Depletion of 5-HT through p-chlorophenylalanine attenuated the anti-hyperalgesic effect of enriched diet and companionship. More significantly, improved diet and companionship enhanced the efficacy of a sub-optimal dose of morphine for analgesia in sickle mice. These findings offer the potential to reduce opioid use without pharmacological interventions to develop effective pain management strategies.
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