Opioids don’t work well for chronic pain and are overused, study finds

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By Maggie Fox

Opioids are not only overused and killing Americans in record numbers; they don’t even work that well for many types of pain, researchers found in a new study released Tuesday.

Opioids are not only overused and killing Americans in records numbers; they don’t even work that well for many types of pain, researchers found in a new study released Tuesday.Mark Lennihan / AP

Other drugs and treatments such as physical therapy or ice may work better for non-cancer pain, the researchers found. Yet when opioids fail to control pain, doctors often simply raise the dosage. This can help lead to a cycle of dependence and addiction.

The opioid epidemic continues to worsen despite years of warning an attention. Last year, 70,000 people died from drug overdoses, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports. The majority of drugs involved were opioids such as fentanyl.

Opioids are most important for use in treating the pain associated with cancer, and medical groups all support their use for cancer pain. But they are often prescribed for back pain, headaches, post-surgical pain and other conditions.

Jason Busse of McMaster University in Ontario and colleagues went through much of the known research on how well opioids work.

“The effects of opioids on chronic pain are uncertain, whereas the harms found to be associated with prescription opioids include diversion, addiction, overdose, and death,” Busse and colleagues wrote in their report, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

“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,” they wrote.

“Compared with placebo, opioids were associated with increased vomiting, drowsiness, constipation, dizziness, nausea, dry mouth, and pruritus (itching).”

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