Update on Pain Medication Epidemic

An NIH white paper found little to no evidence for the effectiveness of opioid drugs in the treatment of long-term chronic pain. The paper, which constitutes the final report of a seven-member panel convened last September, finds that many of the studies used to justify the prescription of these drugs were either poorly conducted or of an insufficient duration.

More than 16,000 people died from prescription opioid overdoses in 2012, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and drug overdose now causes more deaths than motor vehicle accidents for people ages 25-64. This level of opioid use and abuse is unprecedented in the world; the United States, with just 4.6 percent of the world’s population, consumes 80 percent of the world’s opioid drugs.

One of the great challenges in grappling with this issue is the fact that opioid drugs clearly are an effective treatment for some people dealing with post-operative or severe accute pain. Part of the problem is the need for better communication about best practices to physicians who are prescribing these drugs along with effective monitoring programs.

Dr. David Steffens, chair of the psychiatry department at University of Connecticut Health and one of the authors of the study said:

“When it comes to long-term pain, there’s no research-based evidence that these medicines are helpful.”

Opioid prescriptions and use have increased dramatically over the past 20 years; the increase has paralleled increases in opioid overdoses and treatment for addiction to prescription painkillers.

Chronic pain affects an estimated 100 million Americans, or one third of the U.S. population. Approximately 25 million have moderate to severe chronic pain that limits activities and diminishes quality of life. Together, the prevalence of chronic pain and the increasing use of opioids have created a silent “epidemic” of distress, disability, and danger for a large percentage of Americans.

Alternative non-medication based treatments are available to help people manage pain symptoms without the risk of using dangerous and addicting drugs. Addiction treatment centers can help provide addicts with effective recovery skills using a variety of evidence based therapies.