America’s Pain-Pill Epidemic: Not Enough Data to Support Opioid Therapy for Chronic Pain

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Photo courtesy of Corey Merritt

There is no evidence that opioid drugs effectively treat long-term pain, according to a new study. Although prescriptions for opioids and opiate use have skyrocketed in the past few decades, there is no research to show that these drugs are helpful for relieving chronic pain.

Doctors define chronic pain as lasting more than three months or any time past the normal healing time for tissue. Chronic pain is a leading cause of disability and decreased quality of life. Many treatment approaches, including non-opioid pain relievers, acupuncture, physical therapy, electrical stimulation, psychotherapy, behavior modification, chiropractic care and biofeedback can all reduce chronic pain but a growing number of patients and physicians prefer opioid pain medicines.

Commonly used interchangeably with the word “opiates,” opioids are a type of pain reliever that has a chemical structure similar to the morphine and codeine extracted from opium poppy plants. Both opioids and opiates effectively relieve acute pain but are often abused because they also produce a pleasant sense of euphoria.

Opioid Therapy for Chronic Pain

Prescriptions for opioid drugs have more than tripled in the United States in the past 20 years, with doctors writing more than 219 million prescriptions for opioids in 2011. During that same time, opioid abuse has skyrocketed. Many healthcare professionals now describe prescription drug abuse as an epidemic peculiar to the United States, where just 4.6 percent of the world’s population consumes 80 percent of opioids on earth.

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The number of overdoses and overdose deaths has jumped too, taking the lives of more than 16,000 Americans in just 2012 alone. Today, more people aged 25 – 64 die from overdose deaths than from motor vehicle accidents.

Research Suggests Opioids Ineffective for Chronic Pain

National Institutes of Health released their final report on January 17, 2015, which constitutes the opinion formulated during a workshop involving a panel of seven experts, featuring more than 20 speakers, and information gathered during a systematic review. That review included data from MEDLINE, the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials, the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, PsycINFO,, and other relevant studies and reference lists.

That review did not find any study comparing the long-term effectiveness of opioid therapy versus no opioid therapy outcomes relating to pain, function, quality of life, opioid abuse or opioid addiction. The researchers found some good- and fair-quality studies that suggest opioid therapy for long-term pain is associated in a higher risk for abuse, overdose, bone fractures, heart attack and sexual dysfunction, although there are very few studies that look at the long-term outcomes for these patients. Higher doses are associated with greater risks, although there is limited evidence on the effectiveness or harm resulting from larger doses.

The researchers concluded their systematic review by saying that there is not enough evidence to determine whether opioid therapy relieves pain and improves function. The investigators went on to say the evidence shows larger doses pose greater risk for serious harm.

Approximately 100 million Americans suffer from chronic pain and about a quarter of them have moderate to severe chronic pain that causes disability and diminished quality of life. The report from the National Institutes of Health is bad news for the 5 – 8 million Americans who use opioids for long-term pain management. One of the great challenges to interpreting the results of the study is that long-term opioid is effective for some patients but leads to risks, especially abuse and addiction, for others. Patients and practitioners should discuss whether opioid therapy is effective and safe.

Many patients will have to find a new long-term treatment for pain. Quitting opioids will be especially difficult for patients who have become physically dependent on opioids and must therefore go through detoxification before beginning a new course of drugs to relieve pain.

If you or someone you know has determined that opioid therapy is not effectively treating a chronic condition but are having trouble quitting opioids, contact the caring professionals at Waismann Method®Treatment Center. We can help you stop using opioids so you can start looking for a safer, more effective treatment to relieve your chronic pain.