Opioids have been used for thousands of years in the treatment of pain and mental illness. Essentially everyone believes that opioids are powerful pain relievers. However, recent studies have shown that taking acetaminophen and ibuprofen together is actually more effective in treating pain. Because of this, it is helpful for medical professionals and patients to understand the history of these opioid medications and the potential benefits of using nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) instead.
Extracted from the seedpod of the poppy plant, opium was the first opioid compound used for medicinal purposes. The active ingredients of opium are primarily morphine, codeine and thebaine. Opium and its derivatives have had more impact on human society than any other medication. Wars have been fought and countless lives have been lost to the misuse, abuse and overdose of opioids. It is also clear, however, that many received comfort from pain when there was no other alternative. For thousands of years, opium products provided the only effective treatment of pain and were also used to treat anxiety and depression. Tolerance, dependence and addiction were identified early as a problem with opioids.
In 1899, Bayer produced and introduced aspirin for wide distribution. It became the first significant alternative to opioids for treating pain. Aspirin not only relieves pain but also reduces inflammation and is in the class of NSAID medications. Aspirin was commonly used for mild pain such as headache and backache. Other NSAID medications followed with the development of ibuprofen in 1961, indomethacin in 1963 and many others over the next 20 years. While these drugs are not addictive or habit-forming, their use and effectiveness were limited by side effects and toxicity. All NSAID medications share some of the same side effects of aspirin, primarily the risk of gastrointestinal irritation and ulcer. These medications can also harm renal function.
Acetaminophen was created in 1951 but not widely distributed until 1955 under the trade name Tylenol. Acetaminophen is neither an opioid nor an NSAID. Tylenol soon became another medication that was useful in the treatment of pain, offering an alternative to the opioid medications and to aspirin. Acetaminophen avoids many of the side effects of opioids and NSAIDs but carries its own risk with liver toxicity.
Efficacy in acute pain
Since the development of acetaminophen, medical professionals have had the choice of three different classes of medications when treating pain. Those decisions are usually made by considering the perceived effectiveness of each medicine and its side effects along with the physical status of the patient. For example, acetaminophen should not be taken by someone with advanced liver damage; NSAIDs should not be given to an individual with advanced kidney disease or stomach ulcers; and opioids pose a potential risk to anyone with a personal or family history of addiction.
Although many have long been believed that opioids are the strongest pain medications and should be used for more severe pain, scientific literature does not support that belief. There are many other treatments that should be utilized for treating pain. Studies have shown NSAIDs are just as strong as the opioids.
Number needed to treat
When considering the effectiveness or the strength of pain medications, it is important to understand one of the statistical measures used in clinical studies: the number needed to treat (NNT). NNT is the number of people who must be treated by a specific intervention for one person to receive a certain effect. For example, when testing pain medications, the intervention is the dose of pain medication, and the effect is usually 50% pain relief. That is considered effective treatment, allowing people increased functional abilities and an improved quality of life (Cochrane. org, 2014). So the question becomes, how many people must be treated with a certain dose of a medication for one person to receive 50% pain relief (effective relief)?
A lower NNT means the medicine is more effective. A product with an NNT of 1 means that the medicine is 100% effective at reducing pain by 50% — everyone who takes the medicine has effective pain relief. A medicine with an NNT of 2 means two people must be treated for one to receive effective relief. Or, alternatively, one out of two, or 50%, of people who take the medicine get effective pain relief. An example of a medicine that would not be a good pain reliever would be one with a NNT equal to 10. In such a case, you would have to treat 10 people for one to receive effective pain relief. Basically, the medication with the lowest NNT will be the most effective. For oral pain medications, an NNT of 1.5 is very good, and an NNT of 2.5 would be considered good.
Treating chronic pain
Despite the widespread use of opioid medications to treat chronic pain, there is no significant evidence to support this practice. A recent article reviewing the evidence regarding the use of opioids to treat chronic non-cancer pain concluded, “There is no high-quality evidence on the efficacy of long-term opioid treatment of chronic nonmalignant pain.” (Kissin, 2013, p. 519) A recent Cochrane review comparing opioids with placebo in the treatment of low back pain came to a similar conclusion. This review said that there may be some benefit over placebo when used for short-term treatment, but no evidence shows that opioids are helpful when used for longer than four months. There is no evidence of benefit over non-opioid medications when used for less than four months. (Chaparro et al., 2014)
Several other reviews have also concluded that no evidence exists to support long-term use – longer than four months – of opioids to treat chronic pain. (Kissin, 2013; Martell et al., 2007; McNicol, Midbari, & Eisenberg, 2013; Noble et al., 2010)
Epidemiologic studies have also failed to confirm the efficacy of chronic opioid therapy (COT) for chronic non-cancer pain. A large study from Denmark showed that those with chronic pain who were on COT had higher levels of pain, had poorer quality of life and were less functional than those with chronic pain who were not on COT. (Eriksen, Sj.gren, Bruera, Ekholm, & Rasmussen, 2006)
In the last 20 years in the U.S., we have increased our consumption of opioids by more than 600%. (Paulozzi & Baldwin, 2012) Despite this increase, we have not decreased our suffering from pain. The Burden of Disease study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) showed that Americans suffered as much disability from back and neck pain in 2010 as they did in 1990 before the escalation in the prescribing of opioids. (Murray, 2013) A study in JAMA in 2008 found, “Despite rapidly increasing medical expenditures from 1997 to 2005, there was no improvement over this period in self-assessed health status, functional disability, work limitations or social functioning among respondents with spine problems.” (Martin et al., 2008, p. 661)
It is currently estimated that more than 9 million Americans use COT for the treatment of chronic nonmalignant pain (Boudreau et al., 2009). When we consider the proven benefits of this treatment along with the known risks, we must ask ourselves how we can ethically continue this treatment.
The reality is we really don’t know if COT is effective. Anecdotal evidence and expert opinion suggest it may be beneficial in a few, select people. However, epidemiologic studies suggest that it may be doing more harm than good.
The treatment of incurable cancer, end-stage lung disease and other end-of-life situations are notable examples where opioid medications are absolutely indicated. Although opioid painkillers are not very good medications for the treatment of pain, they are very strong psychotherapeutic agents. They are excellent at relieving anxiety and treating depression for a limited time. Opioids cause beneficial changes to brain serotonin, epinephrine, norepinephrine, dopamine and endorphins. For short-term, end-of-life situations, these neuropsychiatric effects are likely beneficial. For terminal care, opioids are the medications of choice.
The opioid medications are often referred to as “powerful painkillers.” In fact, the evidence shows that they are mild to moderate painkillers and less effective than over-the-counter ibuprofen. They have, however, powerful side effects that harm hundreds of thousands of individuals every year in the U.S. Even if one disregards the public health problems created by the use of opioid painkillers, these medications still are not a good choice for the treatment of acute pain — regardless of the severity. In some situations, limited use is appropriate. But in the majority of situations in which opioid painkillers are used today, they are not appropriate.
The standard of care in the practice of medicine today is to provide the best treatment that causes the least harm. When there is a treatment that is proven to be both more effective and safer, it is the treatment of choice. The implication of this data for policymakers is critical. By implementing policy that puts restrictions on opioid prescribing to protect public health, policymakers will also improve the treatment of pain by guiding prescribers to use medications that are more effective. It is also important for the medical and dental communities to address this inadequate and unsafe treatment of pain and change practice standards to guide care that is more appropriate for what our patients need and deserve.
This is an excerpt from a paper that can be downloaded in its entirety from the National Safety Council.