Long Term use of Opioids in people with chronic pain

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As you are aware if you have read about me and my posts, I have been taking narcotics for many years.  After much research and several discussions with my pain management specialist I am convinced that it is safe to use opioids in long term treatment for chronic pain.  An article in Medscape  says there is little risk of addiction from long term use in “select” chronic pain patients. Only (0.27%) of 2613 patients in the studies reviewed who received opioids for CNCP for at least 6 months reportedly developed an addiction to the medication.

The author also mentioned that many people withdrew from the study because lack of pain control and various side effects caused by the pain medication.  This is always a problem when treating chronic pain patients.  Multiple medications and combinations of medications and different dosages as well as route of administration may have to be considered before the patient starts receiving ongoing adequate relief.  Finding the right medication may be difficult in the beginning .  I know it was for me, but because I had exhausted all other avenues of treatment, I stuck with taking prescribed narcotics for pain management and my doctor and worked as a team to find the correct medications for me.

One concern for patients on long term opioid treatment is drug monitoring being done by many physicians. Relying on urine drug screening and testing for managing opioid-analgesic therapy in patients with chronic  pain causes unrecognized problems and challenges.

At least two small studies have found that physicians ordering urine drug screens to monitor patients on long-term opioid therapy typically are not proficient in interpreting the results according to the article about pitfalls of using urine screening tests.

While those who are for urine drug screening have a list of justifiable reasons for doing the tests,  testing results can be complicated and often misleading, leading to delays in patients receiving medications as well as problems in doctor/ patient relationships.  In a previous post I described my frustration about having to wait for a urine screening the entire afternoon in the doctor’s waiting room and I was only “discovered” to be still there when a nurse came to lock the front door at the end of the day.

The article explains many reasons why results of urine tests can be misinterpreted.  This may cause physicians to wrongly label a patient as a drug abuser and punish them by even closer monitoring or worse dismissal of the patient from the doctor’s care.  If the doctor receives positive test results all factors should be considered by reviewing the patient’s history and having a discussion with the patient before any drastic action is taken.  Remember a discharge of a patient by a pain management doctor is a black mark on the patient’s record which makes it difficult for the patient to find anyone else willing to treat their pain.

I read an article in Reuters that even legitimate usage of opioids can cause an overdose in patients. A study, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine was done by  researchers  who followed nearly 10,000 adults who had received at least three opioid prescriptions within 90 days to treat chronic pain.

Of these, 51 experienced at least one overdose, and six died as a result.  Reported studies such as  this one rarely discuss the specific circumstances of these overdoses, what other medications were taken and the co-morbid conditions that the patients might have.

The article states that “several million Americans now use opioids to relieve disabling chronic pain, and so even relatively small overdose rates could amount to thousands of overdoses every year.”  But in fact this does not happen.  Most patients who use opioids to relieve ongoing chronic pain are opioid tolerant which means their risk of overdosing on the narcotics is slim to none.

In the study, overdoses were particularly common among people who had a history of depression or substance abuse.  Remember the people who overdosed were a only a small number of people  in the study who took prescribed opioids.  A history of drug abuse or depression should be documented in the medical record and a physician should take this into an account when prescribing opioids.  This opens up another problem of lack of good historical information by the physician in the patient’s medical record.  I won’t further discuss that in this post as I have discussed the matter in other posts and probably will again in the future.

In “A Review Shows Opioids Relieve Chronic Pain With Little Addiction Risk,”  Meredith Noble, a senior research analyst at ECRI Institute, one of 14 evidence-based Practice Centers in the country under the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, and her colleagues reviewed the findings of 26 clinical studies comprising 4,893 participants of people who take prescribed narcotics on a long term basis.

They  wanted to look at studies  in which people who had chronic pain were treated  for six months or longer, given that chronic pain can go on for years. The review included studies of individuals on opioids for as long as 48 months.

In studies reporting abuse or addiction, only 7 out of 2613 patients reported that they took their medicine incorrectly or that they became addicted.

I agree with the results of the study, if patients are properly screened by history of problems of drug abuse or other complicating factors there is little risk of abuse or addiction.

In conclusion,  long term opioid treatment in chronic pain patients is safe with very little risk of overdose or abuse.






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