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Jury's in: opioids are not better than other medicines for chronic pain

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A few years ago, Renea Molden’s doctors told her they wanted to take her off her opioid pills. It did not sound like good idea to her.

“I was mad, I’ll be honest. I was mad. I was frustrated,” said Molden, 40, of Kansas City, Mo. She struggles with fibromyalgia, bulging discs and degenerative disc disease. Her doctors were concerned about her potentially taking hydrocodone for the rest of her life, but to her, the three pills she took each day seemed to be the only way she could make it through work, go shopping or even fix dinner.

“It felt like they were taking a part of my life away from me,” she said.

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For many people with chronic pain, opioids can seem like the difference between a full life or one lived in agony. Over the past few decades, they have become go-to drugs for acute pain, but Dr. Erin Krebs, with the Minneapolis Veterans Affairs Health Care System and the University of Minnesota, said research about the effectiveness of opioids for chronic pain was lacking. Even though millions of people take the drugs for long periods of time, there is little evidence to support that use.

“The studies that we had out there were short-term studies and mostly compared opioids to placebo medications,” Krebs said. “From those studies, we knew that opioids can improve pain a little bit more than a placebo, or sugar pill, in the short term, but that’s all we knew.”

But that’s changing. Krebs is the lead author of a new study that looks at the effectiveness of opioids for treating chronic pain over 12 months published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

“It felt like they were taking a part of my life away from me.”

“It felt like they were taking a part of my life away from me.”

The study involved 240 veterans with chronic back pain or osteoarthritis of the knee or hip who had pain that was ongoing and intense. Half were treated with opioids and half with non-opioid medications — either common over-the-counter drugs like acetaminophen or naproxen, or prescription drugs like topical lidocaine or meloxicam. Doctors and patients knew what group they were in, said Krebs, and that was deliberate because people’s expectations can influence how they feel.

“We found at the beginning of the study that patients who were enrolled really thought that opioids were far more effective than non-opioid medications,” she said.

But after as little as six months, the non-opioid group reported their pain was slightly less severe than the opioid group’s collective assessment. By the end of the year, Krebs said, “there was really no difference between the groups in terms of pain interference with activities. And over time, the non-opioid group had less pain intensity, and the opioid group had more side effects,” such as constipation, fatigue and nausea.

The study didn’t explore why, but Krebs has a theory: opioid tolerance.

“Within a few weeks or months of taking an opioid on a daily basis, your body gets used to that level of opioid, and you need more and more to get the same level of effect,” she said.

Opioids, of course, also carry the risk of dependence, addiction and overdose. Coming off of opioids gives patients who have developed a dependence flu-like symptoms that can last for days or weeks.

“This study adds the long-term evidence that shows that opioids really don’t have any advantages in terms of pain relief that might outweigh the known harms that they cause,” she said. “The bottom line for people who have chronic back pain or arthritis pain is just that you shouldn’t start opioids.”

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