Opioids and Chronic Pain

Study Suggests that Higher Doses Increase Overdose Risk

Pills in the HandThe January 9, 2010, issue of Annals of Internal Medicine featured a study titled "Opioid Prescriptions for Chronic Pain and Overdose." The study examined the association between long-term opioid use in patients with chronic pain and the increasing rate of fatal opioid overdose.

Opioid medications are powerful, prescription-only analgesics (pain-relieving drugs). Many patients have found pain relief from opioids, but these medications can be addictive if they are not used as directed.

This study was spurred by the increasing rates of opioid-related deaths in recent years. In 1999, there were 4,000 deaths associated with opioid use. That number soared to 13,800 opioid-related deaths in 2006. That number accounted for nearly 40% of all poisoning deaths in the United States that year, according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.1

In the January 2010 report, researchers studied 9,940 people who were taking at least 3 opioid medications within 3 months of one another between the years of 1997 and 2005. Many of the patients were taking the medications to relieve severe back pain.

Out of the group, they found 51 overdoses associated with opioid use, including 6 deaths. The researchers found that participants receiving the highest opioid doses were nearly 9 times more likely to overdose than those taking a lower dose.

The research team concluded that higher opioid doses do pose an increased risk for overdose. However, that doesn't mean that you should avoid opioids if your doctor believes they may work for you. Many people do find pain relief with these medications. What's most important is that you follow your doctor's strict instructions when taking opioids.

To learn more about this study, read the abstract here.

If you have chronic pain and want to learn more about what medications might help reduce your pain, we suggest reading our article about drugs and medications for chronic pain. It features more information about opioids, but it also covers the full range of chronic pain medication options—both over-the-counter and prescription.

Updated on: 08/24/15
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