Long-term opioid use is sometimes prescribed for patients with chronic pain, such as headaches, back pain and arthritis. One-third of Americans deal with chronic, non-cancer-related pain. As opioid medications were increasingly used to manage chronic pain, the rate of overdose deaths related to opioids has also increased. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 64,000 Americans died of a drug overdose in 2016. This is five times higher than the number of overdoses in 1999.
The journal Pain published a study performed by researchers at Washington State University. The researchers looked at the effects of stopping long-term opioid therapy for chronic pain that is unrelated to cancer, and found that discontinuing the opioids does not make pain worse.
According to Sterling McPherson, associate professor and director for biostatistics and clinical trial design at Washington State University’s Elson F. Floyd College of Medicine, pain not only did not worsen among patients after a year—it improved slightly among some patients with mild to moderate pain.
For the study, McPherson and researchers from the Oregon Health & Science University and the Veteran Affairs Portland Health Care System looked at survey responses from 551 VA patients who had been using long-term opioid therapy for chronic pain for at least a year prior to stopping use. The chronic pain the patients experienced included musculoskeletal pain, headache pain, and neuropathic pain.
The survey respondents rated their pain on a scale of 0-10 over two years. Using analysis and computer modeling, the researchers mapped out the changes in pain intensity one year before the patients discontinued opioid therapy and one year after discontinuing.
For the results, the intensity of pain that was experienced varied among the patients. However, as a group, pain was not found to worsen after discontinuing long-term opioid therapy. Instead, it either remained similar or slightly improved, showing that this type of therapy is not necessarily more effective than other options.
This study is important, especially because it can help doctors focus on finding effective and alternative treatment options for patients. Further research is planned.