In a study published today by the  Journal of the American Medical Association  ( JAMA ), McMaster University reviewed 96 clinical trials with more than 26,000 participants and found opioids provide only small improvements in pain, physical functioning and sleep quality compared to placebo.

The opioids, however, also increase the risk of vomiting, drowsiness, constipation, dizziness, nausea, dry mouth, and itching. The analysis also shows similar benefits for pain and physical functioning between opioids and non-opioid alternatives such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories, antidepressants, and synthetic cannabinoids. 

Chronic non-cancer pain

The study is important as there are estimated 50 million Americans and six million Canadians living with chronic non-cancer pain, many who are prescribed opioid medications.

"Without widespread use, there is not much known about the benefits and harms of opioids for chronic non-cancer pain," said Jason Busse, lead author of the study and a researcher with the Michael G. DeGroote Institute for Pain Research and Care at McMaster University.

"We found that, compared to placebo, 12% more patients treated with opioids will experience pain relief, 8% more will notice an improvement in their physical functioning, and about 6% more will find improvement in their sleep quality .

"These are very modest effects, and opioids were not associated with any important improvement in the social, role, or emotional functioning," said Busse, who is also an associate professor of anesthesia at McMaster.

"In Addition to the side effects we found can result from opioid use, These medications are associated With addiction, overdose, and death. Given Their Risks, modest benefits, and the comparative effectiveness of alternatives, our results support That opioids should not be first-line therapy for chronic non-cancer pain, "he said.