Researchers have documented how the same hormone known widely among expectant mothers as a means for helping to induce child delivery or lactation also suppresses inflammatory pain, according to a study led by the University of Illinois College of Medicine Peoria.

Oxytocin, sometimes referred to as the “love hormone” and commonly employed by doctors since the early 1900s as a medication to stimulate contractions for childbirth, is secreted naturally and directly targets and blocks specific pain-sensing receptors, according to the findings published this month in the journal Cell Reports.

The specific pain-sensing receptor found to bind with oxytocin and highlighted in the study, called TRPV1, also is known for heat sensation and regulating body temperature.

“When we experience pain, especially through inflammation, that’s the pain receptor telling the brain there’s a problem, which triggers an immune response and the release of oxytocin. The oxytocin then binds to the receptors, desensitizes them, and in doing so suppresses the pain,” said Dr. Eleonora Zakharian, a UICOMP researcher and supervisor of the multinational study.

The findings open the door to developing new drug therapies targeting pain using the natural hormone. Previous studies showed oxytocin to suppress pain, including in migraines, but how was unclear. “Now that we know the mechanisms at work, additional studies can be developed to identify new drug therapies addressing pain,” Zakharian said. The study’s lead author is UICOMP’s Dr. Yelena Nersesyan.

In the U.S. alone, the cost of chronic pain management is estimated at $150 billion to $600 billion annually. The findings also could lead to potentially reducing reliance on opiates for pain management, which has been a growing national concern.

Oxytocin has been found at elevated levels in new parents and couples and is well documented as contributing to social behaviors and bonding, earning it the designation as “love hormone” by some, including in popular culture.