Long-term Use of Opioids for Complex Chronic Pain

Long-term Use of Opioids for Complex Chronic PainOct 2014

This chapter focuses on the use of opioids for care of chronic musculoskeletal pain conditions such as back pain, and addresses clinical and public health issues that arise when opioids are used long-term for these conditions.

For our purposes, long-term use is defined by use of opioids for two months or more on a daily or near-daily basis. While the large majority of patients who use opioids for a few days or weeks discontinue use, the likelihood of sustained use is increased among persons who sustain daily or near daily use for more than two months

That’s because “daily use” is due to daily pain!

Many patients using opioids long-term manifest “complex chronic pain”, characterized by:

  • Absence of readily identifiable causes, a definitive differential diagnosis and/or highly effective treatments;
  • presence of activity limitations and disabilities, patient concerns that pain cannot be controlled, may not improve, and that underlying causes of pain make it unsafe to resume normal activities;
  • Presence of diffuse pain and/or clinically significant depression and anxiety.

I’m disgusted that they pair “diffuse pain” with depression and anxiety. There’s no scientific basis for doing so, it’s just a belief of the researchers that’s deeply embedded in the very design and purpose this study and a clear example of research bias.

While the pain status of chronic pain patients using opioids long-term is highly variable, many chronic pain patients using opioids long-term have some or many of these features of complex chronic pain

Chronic pain conditions for which opioids are most often prescribed include

  • back and neck pain,
  • osteoarthritis and extremity pains,
  • shoulder pain,
  • headache,
  • orofacial pain,
  • pelvic pain, and
  • fibromyalgia or
  • chronic widespread pain.

Although these recommended practices are prudent, no well-controlled research has determined whether enhanced COT monitoring reduces risks of opioid abuse, overdose or other potential adverse outcomes

A review concluded that treatment of chronic pain “may be further complicated when patients and health care providers have differing goals and attitudes concerning treatment. Difficulties in collaborative treatment decision making may result.”

Why opioid dose matters

Clinical guidelines have always urged care in prescribing opioids, but there has not been agreement of guidance regarding COT dose.

And that is exactly how it should be (this was from 2014); how can there be guidance for something so variable?

It’s just as stupid as saying that because many Americans are 40lbs overweight, all Americans must lose 40lbs, regardless of their gender or physical condition.

  • Some experts recommend a low-to-moderate dose ceiling,
  • while others advocate increasing a patient’s opioid dose until pain is controlled, with no dose ceiling.

However, we do not know if these two distinctly different COT dosing strategies result in long-term differences in pain outcomes for patients, and we lack evidence from long-term controlled trials regarding differences in COT effectiveness and safety by dose

Whenever they are being unreasonable about limiting opioids, they use the “lack of evidence” as their evidence that opioids are not effective.

Patient risk factors

Chou et al’s structured review of opioid misuse prediction concluded that, “only limited evidence exists to determine optimal methods for prediction and identification of aberrant drug-related behaviors”, a conclusion also supported by Turk et al.’s review.

Citing methodological shortcomings of existing studies, Chou’s review noted, “…because the methods used to define aberrant drug-related behaviors did not distinguish relatively less serious from more serious behaviors…the clinical importance of their identification is unclear”.

Only one study has predicted risks of prescription opioid abuse among COT patients based on patient variables and duration of opioid use. Hojsted et al. found 82% sensitivity but only 58% specificity in predicting prescription opioid addiction.

Drug regimen risk factors

Expert guidelines assert that around the clock dosing, with long-acting opioids, reduces risks of addiction by providing more stable opioid blood levels, improved pain control, and reduced reinforcement of problematic drug use behaviors.

This only works as expected if pain severity (and pain perception) is constant.

However, evidence on whether time-scheduled dosing improves pain control and reduces addiction risks is limited.

COT patients using time-scheduled dosing, compared to those using pain-contingent dosing, received substantially higher average daily doses and were much more likely to report concerns about ability to control use of opioid analgesics, while pain control and satisfaction with opioid analgesics did not differ.

Data questioning COT Effectiveness

Observational studies have found that patients using opioids, and those on higher dose regimens, have poorer functional status and lower quality of life than patients not using opioids or patients on low-dose regimens.

I’m appalled that all these articles are written as though taking opioids were a completely independent variable/activity instead of tied directly to the amount of pain a person is dealing with. People who need high doses probably have high pain levels, and that’s what lowers their quality of life, not the medication they take to ameliorate it.

People who need high doses of any drug will be much sicker than those that don’t need them, but to blame it on the drugs they are taking to treat their health problem is absurd.

Cohort studies of worker’s compensation patients found that those using opioids are delayed in returning to work relative to patients not using opioids and patients receiving higher opioid dose are also delayed returning to work relative to patients on lower opioid doses.

This is perfectly logical when you remember that higher and more consistent opioid dosing occurs in response to the patient’s pain level.

In assessing COT risks, there is a need for controlled research that assesses the full spectrum of health risks of opioids, relative to benefits. There is also a need for research that evaluates the comparative safety of opioids relative to other analgesics are commonly used for management of chronic musculoskeletal pain, such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and acetaminophen.

Accumulating evidence regarding NSAID risks resulted in the American Geriatrics Society to preferentially recommend opioids over NSAIDs for management of chronic pain, but this recommendation was not based on a direct comparison of the comparative safety of opioids relatively to NSAIDs.

This is an entirely sensible policy and it’s also the reason my doctor started me on opioids in 1995.

We had tried several treatments, therapies, and even surgeries to alleviate my ever-increasing pain and it would have taken consistent and huge amounts of NSAIDs and Tylenol to ease it, so he prescribed the much less harmful opioids instead. Opioids are only dangerous if you are prone to addiction, and since I’m not, they are very safe for me.

Practice points

Given uncertainty about the long-term effectiveness of COT, and growing evidence that potential risks and harms are greater than initially believed, use of opioids for long-term management of chronic pain should be considered with caution commensurate with the potential risks.

I don’t disagree that opioids should be used cautiously, but this certainly doesn’t mean to not use them at all.

Table 1
Practice points for selective and cautious opioid prescribing among patients with chronic musculoskeletal pain conditions

  • Put patient safety first – Find common ground with patients by emphasizing their safety

When a patient is left in unrelieved pain, there’s a different risk that’s left unmentioned: death by suicide.

  • Do not sustain opioid use long-term without decisive benefitsInitial evaluation of long-term opioid use should be based on a therapeutic trial lasting no more than 90 days, preferably less. Long term use of opioids should only be continued if decisive benefits are observed during the trial. Opioids should not be continued if improved function is not sustained. Involve the patient in determining functional goals for therapy. Continually monitor the benefit-to-harm ratio as benefits may decrease while harms accrue over time.

This seems completely obvious and the same criteria apply to *all* pharmaceutical use, not just opioids. Why should opioids be prescribed if there’s no gain for the patient?

The real issue is WHO gets to decide whether the patient is “improved”.

  • Think twice before prescribing long-term opioids for axial low back pain, headache and fibromyalgia

Thinking twice is different than not thinking at all and simply obeying inflexible “guidelines”.

All patients are individuals and should be treated as such, so each patient’s specific situation and response to opioid medication must be evaluated.

This is exactly what doctors are for and why we don’t “practice medicine” by algorithm – at least not yet, but it’s coming.

  • Consider intermittent opioid useContinuous use of long acting opioids has not been proven more effective or safer than intermittent use of short-acting opioids. Time-scheduled opioid prescribing has not been proven to reduce risks of opioid misuse or addiction.

This is true not just for opioids. Dosing of any medication should be according to the symptomatic benefits. While there are few symptoms, no medication is needed, and then when symptoms do appear, medication *is* needed.

I’m lucky that my pain isn’t consistent and becomes severe only if I’m active. We’re supposed to be active and even exercise, aren’t we? If we don’t, we’re told our pain is *because* we don’t exercise enough.

Without opioids, I’d be incredibly handicapped and unable to do much more than lying around, which would then lead to deconditioning and a whole slew of different pains.

That’s not the life I want – and it may not even be tolerable for my hyperactive mind to lie around passively, all day every day, to avoid pulling on my connective tissue and causing myself pain.

  • Systematically evaluate risks

Indeed, because the risk of under-dosing means a patient will not be as active as possible, they will suffer from deconditioning and become more disabled over time.

  • Keep opioid doses as low as possibleReaching doses of 50 to 100 milligrams morphine equivalents or higher should trigger re-evaluation of the therapy.

Again, this is an obvious “rule” that applies to all drugs.


Opioid-related risks appear to increase with dose.

When the best they can say is that risks “appear” to increase, it’s an admission that it’s never been proven.

Given the lack of adequate trials data, recent epidemiologic studies suggest the need for caution when considering long-term use of opioids to manage chronic musculoskeletal pain, particularly at higher dosage levels.

A “need for caution” is NOT a prohibition and should equally be applied to any other medications or treatments for any other syndromes or diseases.

Are they suggesting that it’s normal medical practice to prescribe medications “without caution”?

No drugs should ever be prescribed carelessly.

12 thoughts on “Long-term Use of Opioids for Complex Chronic Pain

  1. Michelle S


    Liked by 2 people

    1. Zyp Czyk Post author

      The problem is that these studies are all premised on finding and exaggerating any problems with opioids and downplaying their benefits. It seems that any other kinds of “studies of opioids” are simply not being funded these days.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Kathy C

    These articles are all about deception and lies. They are creating doubt about the existence of pain, and at the same time placing blame for the epidemic of despair on sick people. The distorted reasoning behind these “Studies” is meant to deceive, obscure and mislead. After all of any of these articles contained facts, there would be no more industry funding.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Zyp Czyk Post author

      Hyperalgesia is a convenient “reason” to deny us pain relief and it’s always mentioned in any talk about opioids even though there’s no hard proof it happens in humans taking opioids for pain. If it occurs at all, it’s in people abusing opioids and taking massive doses not needed for pain control.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Flutterby

    And this is why I’ve had to fight tooth and nail to try to keep my pain under control BEFORE and AFTER my stage IV cancer dx. Most affected places are sternum, lumbar spine, and right hip. I’d like to see any of these study authors try to deal with that kind of pain and have to keep fighting for a dosage that helps.

    As for “no data on long term opioid usage”, I’ve said it before – the patients are here, so why tf haven’t you studied us?!?! *crickets chirping*

    It’s enough to make a person either beat their head against something solid or take all their meds when they’re refilled and just end the suffering.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Zyp Czyk Post author

      I’m horrified that even with cancer, you have to fight for appropriate pain relief. Cancer used to be untouchable for such barbaric restrictions. How much pain and misery are we expected to tolerate? They can force us to live with pain, but they can’t force us to live…

      When people don’t have pain themselves, they seem to have a hard time understanding painful situations. I think it’s built into us humans to forget pain after it’s gone – after all, what would be the survival value of pain’s unpleasantness when whatever caused it is gone? But while everyone else has forgotten their previous pain, we with chronic pain are never allowed to forget.


  4. Ed Barber

    If having the nerve damage and decay of nerves gives pain like I have. Just trying to walk is a pain & the ole adage that you just need to walk more and suck it up and it will build miscle stringht isn’t the case it just builds up excess great Pain

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Zyp Czyk Post author

      Exactly – but the reason we can’t exercise is *because* we’re in too much pain. That’s why a good doctor will prescribe opioids so that we *can* exercise and stay healthy instead of lying around all day.


  5. Flutterby

    They only say that there are no long term studies for COT because in the study world, 12 weeks is considered “long term.”

    12 weeks, 90 days, one trimester – certainly there can be a way to “study” patients taking COT for longer than 3 months. That amount of time compared to my 22 years of intractable pain isn’t even a drop in the bucket.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Zyp Czyk Post author

      The problem I see is that to be of good quality, a study can’t rely on self reports and it can’t be retrospective. But setting up a prospective study with some receiving placebo for a long time is an ethical issue. It’s ironic that they are doing exactly that with forced tapering – we’re all just Guinea pigs for the drug warriors these days.



Other thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.