Opioid painkillers are a $24 billion market. U.S. doctors wrote almost 260 million opioid prescriptions in 2012. To put that in perspective, America’s population in 2012 stood at 314 million. So doctors wrote an opioid prescription for every 1.2 people in the U.S. that year.
If that sounds like epidemic proportions, it is. CNBC reports the U.S. – with 5% of the world’s population – uses 80% of all opioids. Can we really be hurting that much more than the rest of the world?
Or is something else going on?
If a doctor ever suggests opioids for your pain, there’s something you need to know.
What Are These Drugs, Anyway?
The word “opioid” is from the same root as “opium.” As in the source heroin and morphine. Like heroin and morphine, they attach to so-called opioid receptors in your brain and dull pain and emotions.
And, also like heroin and morphine, they’re highly addictive.
There are good medical reasons to use drugs like morphine and codeine (another opioid). Morphine works well against post-surgical pain. But it’s highly addictive. So doctors traditionally saved morphine for short-term problems… to ease the pain of cancer… or for those near death.
But thanks to the hard sell by drug companies, the use of synthetic opioids like oxycontin has skyrocketed – along with drug company profits.
The problem is it’s not clear we’re getting so much benefit from these dangerous drugs.
NIH: A “Dire Need” for Research
Last year, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) published a report on these drugs. The report noted a “dire need” for research because there’s “scant” evidence they’re effective for many of their uses.
But there’s plenty of evidence of harm. Here are just a few of the report’s highlights…
- By 2010, 160,000 people wound up in the hospital due to opioid addiction
- In 2013, 71% of all prescription drug overdoses were from opioids
- Opioids killed 16,325 people in 2013
- Opioids now kill 46 Americans every day – a higher toll than car accidents
Perhaps even worse, up to 8 million Americans take opioids to manage long-term pain. But almost none of the studies on these drugs ran longer than 12 weeks.
And what evidence we have suggests opioids provide very little – if any – long-term benefits.
Opioids Fail in Study After Study
Opioids seem to work well for pain linked to surgery or injury. At least in the short term. But for almost everything else, there isn’t much evidence. In fact, there’s some evidence – especially for chronic, non-cancer pain – they don’t work well at all.
Here are just a handful of the studies I found…
- 1988 – A study in the journal Pain finds opioids aren’t effective against nerve pain or pain from unidentified causes.
- 2006 – In a survey of 10,066 Danes with long-term chronic pain, opioids weren’t effective improving function, quality of life, or pain relief.
- 2006 – A review of 41 studies showed only the strongest opioids beat other drugs against chronic pain. In spite of the longest study lasting just 16 weeks, a third of the participants dropped out over all.
- 2008 – In the Clinical Journal of Pain, a review of studies finds opioids are often ineffective over the long-term for chronic pain.
- 2008 – In a special issue of Pain Physician, scientists report finding evidence of long-term effectiveness for only two opioids… and that evidence is “weak.”
- 2010 – A Cochrane group review of 26 “long-term” opioid studies had a drop-out rate of nearly 70% – 43.9% due to adverse events and 23.7% for lack of relief.
- 2011 – A multi-center U.S. review found a lack of evidence for using opioids for chronic pain. The authors said doctors should use “great restraint and caution” in prescribing them.
What Are Your Options?
Drug company salespeople are out there pushing these drugs to doctors… and probably not talking up negative studies. And pain clinics hand them out like candy. If you suffer with chronic pain, you’ll have to be your own advocate.
Discuss options with your doctor. He or she may not be aware of the NIH report. Or any of the studies listed here, for that matter. It’s okay to express your concerns.
Other drugs are proven more effective against chronic pain over the long haul. But keep in mind all drugs have drawbacks and side effects.
Other therapies may help. Studies have found physical therapy, acupuncture, herbs (such as white willow bark), and gentle exercises like yoga and Tai chi can ease pain without drugs.
Explore your options. You don’t want to wind up a statistic in the next NIH report.
About the Author: Jason Kennedy is a celebrated investigative health writer and the author of The X-Factor Revolution and Beyond the Blue Zone. With over 10 years of experience working with today’s leading alternative and anti-aging doctors, Jason shares his insider status and access to the latest breakthroughs with thousands of readers from around world.
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