Researchers conducting a new review of previous studies have found that opioids may not be the best course of treatment for many types of pain. In fact, they found that the benefits of opioids were questionable when compared to non-opioid treatments. Their report was recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Opioids are commonly used in treating the pain associated with cancer, but physicians also prescribe them for back pain, headaches, post-surgical pain and other conditions. Exactly how much patients benefit from these drugs, and whether the benefits outweigh the risks, has been unclear.
Lead study author Jason Busse, an associate professor and researcher at McMaster University’s Michael G. DeGroote Institute for Pain Research and Care, and his colleagues conducted a meta-analysis of 96 previous clinical trials of prescription opioids that included more than 26,000 people. They also analyzed information from nine clinical trials involving more than 1,400 people that specifically compared opioid drugs with non-opioid treatments, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS).
The meta-analysis found that, compared with a placebo, the benefits of taking opioids was minimal. Busse and his colleagues wrote: “Compared with placebo, opioids were associated with small improvements in pain, physical functioning, and sleep quality; unimportant improvements in social functioning; and no improvements in emotional functioning or role functioning.” The results also showed that people who received opioid drugs reported about the same amount of pain relief as those who received NSAIDS.
Because prescription opioids are linked with serious risks, including addiction, overdose and death, and that other therapies may provide similar benefits, “our results support that opioids should not be first-line therapy for chronic noncancer pain,” Busse said in a statement. According to his research, an estimated 50 million adults in the United States were living with chronic non-cancer pain in 2016, with many of them taking a prescribed opioid for pain relief.
As the opioid epidemic in the United States continues to worsen, Americans are dying in record numbers. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 70,000 people died from drug overdoses last year, with the majority of them taking opioids such as fentanyl.