Health & Medical

Prescription opioids fail test for chronic pain


CHICAGO (AP) – A yearlong study offers rigorous new evidence against using prescription opioids for chronic pain.

In patients with stubborn back aches or hip or knee arthritis, opioids worked no better than over-the-counter drugs or other nonopioids at reducing problems with walking or sleeping. And they provided slightly less pain relief,

Opioids tested included generic Vicodin, oxycodone or fentanyl patches, although few patients needed the most potent opioids. Nonopioids included generic Tylenol, ibuprofen and prescription pills for nerve or muscle pain. The study randomly assigned patients to take opioids or other painkillers. That’s the gold standard design for research.

If they don’t work better than less risky drugs, there’s no reason to use opioids given “their really nasty side effects – death and addiction,” said lead author Dr. Erin Krebs, a physician and researcher with the Minneapolis Veterans Affairs Health Care System.

The results likely will surprise many people “because opioids have this reputation as being really powerful painkillers, and that is not what we found,” Krebs said.

The results echo less rigorous studies and bolster guidelines against routine use of opioids for chronic pain.

The study was published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

About 42,000 drug overdose deaths in the U.S. in 2016 involved opioids, including prescription painkillers, heroin and fentanyl. Many people get hooked while taking opioids prescribed for injuries or other short-term pain and move on to cheaper, more accessible illicit drugs like heroin.

U.S. government guidelines in 2016 said opioids are not the preferred treatment for chronic pain, and they recommend non-drug treatment or nonopioid painkillers instead.

Opioids should be used only if other methods don’t work for chronic pain, the guidelines recommend. Prescribing rates have declined slightly in recent years although they are still much higher than
2 decades ago.

Krebs said the strongest evidence from other studies shows that physical therapy, exercise or rehabilitation therapy works best for chronic pain. And she noted that there are a variety of nonopioid drugs to try if one type doesn’t work.

The study involved 234 patients from Minneapolis-area VA clinics who were assigned to use generic versions of opioids or nonopioids for a year. Follow-up ended in 2016.

Other research has shown that over-the-counter medicines can also work as well as opioids at treating short-term pain, including from broken bones, kidney stones or dental work.


AP reporter Mike Stobbe in New York contributed to this report.


Follow AP Medical Writer Lindsey Tanner on Twitter at @LindseyTanner. Her work can be found here .