The researches find that the acute pain that lasts for longer than three months affects around one in five people in Europe. The increase in use of strong morphine-type drugs (opioids) for the treatment of chronic pain is an area of much concern, particularly in North America. Termed an “opioid epidemic,” most developed countries have seen a major increase in opioid prescribing over the last decade or so. Our latest research assesses how good the evidence is that opioids can help chronic pain effectively; balanced against any harms they can cause.

Opioid epidemic most develop

Chronic pain very often doesn’t get better; so people can be prescribe opioids for a long time years; or even decades. Is there evidence that opioids continue to work well to reduce chronic pain and improve quality of life? The majority of clinical trials only study opioid use for three months; so we don’t really know much about their effectiveness over the longer term. One of the few studies that has looked at how effective opioids are after 12 months; found that people who took opioid painkillers were not any more active than those on other types of painkillers.

There is also evidence that long-term use of opioids may be harmful. This is likely to be dose-related as risks increase at higher doses. Opioids should be used for as short a time as possible; in carefully selected people with chronic pain. This should happen when other treatments haven’t worked to manage the pain and where the benefits outweigh the risks of the serious harms listed above. Before starting treatment, the person with chronic pain and the prescriber should agree what the treatment aims are. These might include reduced pain; increased activity and/or better quality of life.

People with chronic pain

If this doesn’t happen then there should be an agreed action plan to reduce and stop opioids. There should be ongoing, regular review by a member of the primary healthcare team, especially if the daily dose is equivalent to more than 50mg of morphine. Review should be frequent in the early stages, and at least annually, after treatment is established. If problems arise—such as opioids no longer providing good pain relief, increasing the dose provides no sustained pain relief or then there is evidence of addiction then more frequent review will be needed and consideration given to reducing/stopping treatment.

We should always use the lowest effective dose. Higher doses (equivalent to more than 90mg/day of morphine) should only be prescribed alongside review by a pain specialist. These recommendations are consistent with those of The International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP). The organization emphasizes that the use of other approaches, including behavioural therapies and increasing physical activity to improve quality of life, is prefer.