It may sound counterintuitive, but new research suggests that reducing long-term opioid intake could actually lead to lower pain levels in patients with chronic pain.
More than 10 million Americans are currently prescribed a long-term opioid to deal with a chronic pain condition. The number of people who get these prescriptions continues to grow, and not surprisingly so too do opioid overdose deaths. Used correctly, opioids can work wonders for individuals who have been struggling to find a way to take control of their chronic pain, but far too often they are overprescribed and knowingly or unknowingly abused.
Long-term opioids should only continue to be used if you’re still seeking active treatment options to address the painful condition. Since opioids are a passive treatment option, they are only masking the pain, and they aren’t actively working to correct the problem. They can work wonders when paired with active solutions like physical therapy or exercise because it can lessen pain during these crucial strengthening times, but if you’re not actively working towards a solution, long-term opioids are just dulling the pain while your body begins to crave larger doses of the drug to be effective, which can lead patients down the path of addiction.
Reducing Long-Term Opioid Intake
Researchers conducted a systematic review of 67 published studies in order to determine the effects of discontinuing long-term opioid therapy for patients with chronic pain conditions. Although they admit that the overall quality of evidence was not superb, they found an association between long-term opioid dose reduction and improvements in pain, function and quality of life.
“It’s counterintuitive that pain and well-being could be improved when you decrease pain medication…but patients felt better when dosages were reduced,” said Dr. Erin Krebs, medical director of the Women Veterans Comprehensive Health Center, part of the Minneapolis Veterans Affairs Health Care System, and an author of the study.
However, study authors echoed what we’ve been saying in this blog, that long-term opioid reduction shouldn’t be done by itself. It should be reduced with the oversight of a licensed physician and paired with other multidisciplinary approaches and behavioral interventions to continue actively pursuing pain reduction and function improvement. Hopefully future studies can take a closer look at this idea and provide some clearer solutions with stronger evidence so we can continue doing everything in our power to help patients fight back against their chronic pain conditions.
Thomas Cohn, MD
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