Study: Long-Term Opioid Use Often Ineffective

By Pat Anson, Editor

Less than half the people on long-term opioid therapy achieve relief from chronic pain, according to a new survey that found opioids even less effective in younger women. However, most respondents still considered opioids to be very or extremely helpful.

Over two thousand women and men enrolled in group health plans in Washington State and northern California were surveyed about their long-term use of opioids. The study, published in the Journal of Women’s Health, is believed to be the first to look at differences in the effectiveness of opioids between the sexes.    

Only about 20 percent of the patients on long term opioid therapy were classified as having a favorable “global pain status” – which is a measure of overall pain and function. Nearly 28% had an intermediate status and over 52% had an unfavorable global pain status.

Women between the ages of 21 and 44 were much more likely than men in the same age group to have an unfavorable status (66% vs. 40%). That finding is significant because younger women face unique risks from opioid use, such as reduced fertility and risks to a developing fetus during pregnancy.

"Given the high rates of chronic opioid use in women along with evidence of poor relief from pain and concerning risks, particularly in reproductive-aged women, we need more effective and safer options for managing pain in this population," Susan Kornstein, MD, Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Women's Health and  Executive Director of the Virginia Commonwealth University Institute for Women's Health.

Over half the women and men with “unfavorable” pain status were depressed, unemployed, laid off or not working for health reasons.

“Our observational data indicate that for typical COT (chronic opioid therapy) patients in community practice the probability of experiencing good pain control and favorable levels of functioning is relatively low,” the study found. “However, regardless of global pain status, in every age–sex group, the majority of patients rated opioids as very or extremely helpful in relieving pain.”

Researchers admitted they could not assess whether pain and function had improved or deteriorated from the time patients began using opioids. They also could not explain why opioids appear to be more effective in men than women.

“Women tend to have greater pain severity, and are more likely to be prescribed opioids to treat their pain.  However, opioids work less well in women,” said Beth Darnall, PhD, a pain psychologist, clinical associate professor at Stanford University and author of Less Pain, Fewer Pills.

“Rather than stopping medications that are not working well, often the opioid prescriptions are continued and the dose increased—this can set women up to have more side effects and even greater pain.”

Darnall, who has studied the medical and psychological risks of long-term opioid use by women, says safer alternatives to opioids need to be found.

“For many years there was a common perception that opioids were a ‘solution’ to pain. We must continue to look beyond opioids to comprehensive treatments that have low risks for patients. Such treatments may include acupuncture, pain psychology, self-management, physical therapy, and occupational therapy.  A primary problem is lack of access to these low-risk, effective treatments.”