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Are Opioids Really Better for Pain than OTC Painkillers?

Genexa Genexa 2018-03-21 11:27:00 -0700


With the American opioid crisis reaching staggering heights, more and more people are asking whether addictive opioid painkillers are even worth prescribing in the first place. If there are so many serious risks associated with taking opioids – like addiction, overdose, and death – is it responsible to make them available to the public? Are there significant benefits to prescribing opioid painkillers to people who are in pain?

Recent studies from the Journal of the American Medical Association suggest the answer is no. The most recent study, published on March 8th, 2018, focused on patients with chronic pain due to osteoarthritis. The patients all suffered from arthritic pain, such as knee pain, back pain, and hip pain. While opioid options did offer pain relief for these symptoms, the full conclusion might shock you: the opioid drugs did not provide significantly better relief than non-opioid painkillers like ibuprofen and acetaminophen over the course of 12 months.

"Recent studies from the Journal of the American Medical Association suggest the answer is no."

This is a pretty big deal. For a long time, it has been assumed that opioid medications, such as morphine, oxycodone, and hydrocodone, are stronger and more effective for pain management. In this case, that assumption appears to be completely wrong.

But that study was just on pain from arthritis. What about more acute pain, such as from bone fractures and dislocations? Well, according to another JAMA study, it’s the same case. Non-opioid medicines work just as well as opioids in those situations.

The randomized study specifically focused on acute shoulder, hip, arm, and leg pain found in an emergency room setting. Some patients were given an opioid painkiller for relief, and others were given over-the-counter, non-opioid pain medicine. After, their pain levels were monitored over the course of two hours. As in the other study, it was again found that there was no significant difference in the amount of pain relief the patient experienced between the two drugs. These results, like the results in the arthritic pain study, confirm that opioids are no better for acute pain than OTCs. 

While this doesn’t mean that there is no place for opioid pain medication, it does mean that it may be time to dispel some common misconceptions about them. The aforementioned research indicates that, especially when in an emergency room situation, doctors should consider other pain relief options before resorting to addictive opioids. Moreover, taking into account the results of these studies, it may be in the best interest of patients to become more proactive in their own care, making sure to more fully understand their pain medication options.  You can ask your doctor about all the pain management options available to you before taking a risk with dangerous and potentially harmful opioid drugs.

"It may be in the best interest of patients to become more proactive in their own care."

In 2012, the number of opioid prescriptions rose to an all-time high with 282 million in one year. For perspective, doctors dispensed only 112 million opioid prescriptions in 1992, twenty years earlier. Since then the number has fallen slightly – to 236 million in 2016 – but is still shockingly high today. It is extremely easy to become addicted to opioids, and even a short course of prescription opioid painkillers can result in difficult withdrawal symptoms and dependency.

That is why it is so important to curb the number of opioid prescriptions dispensed, especially for conditions that may not require such powerful drugs. As a potential patient, it is important to educate yourself as to what medications could actually be hurting your family more than helping them. Do your research, talk to your doctor, and trust your gut. And for more essential information, advice, and content, be sure to sign up for our email list.

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