Patients Say Non-Opioid Therapies Often Don’t Work

By Pat Anson, Editor

Pain treatments recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as alternatives to opioids often do not work and are usually not covered by insurance, according to a large survey of pain patients.  Many also believe the CDC’s opioid prescribing guidelines discriminate against pain patients.

Over 2,000 acute and chronic pain patients in the U.S. participated in the online survey by Pain News Network and the Power of Pain Foundation. Most said they currently take an opioid pain medication.

When asked if they think pain patients are being discriminated against by the CDC guidelines and other government regulations, 95% said they “agree” or “strongly agree.”  Only 2% said they disagree or strongly disagree.

The draft guidelines released last month by the CDC recommend “non-pharmacological therapy” and “non-opioid” pain relievers as preferred treatments for chronic non-cancer pain. Smaller doses and quantities of opioids are recommended for patients in acute or chronic pain.  A complete list of the guidelines can be found here.

“Many non-pharmacologic therapies, including exercise therapy, weight loss, and psychological therapies such as CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) can ameliorate chronic pain," the CDC states in internal briefing documents obtain by PNN.


“Several nonopioid pharmacologic therapies (including acetaminophen, NSAIDs, and selected antidepressants and anticonvulsants) are effective for chronic pain. In particular, acetaminophen and NSAIDs can be useful for arthritis and low back pain, and antidepressants such as tricyclics and SNRIs as well as selected anticonvulsants are effective in neuropathic pain conditions and in fibromyalgia.”

Most patients who were surveyed said they had already tried many of these non-opioid treatments and had mixed results, at best.

“Does the CDC really believe that a pain patient on long term opiates hasn't already tried everything else possible?” asked one patient.

“The CDC says don't do something but comes up with NO viable, realistic alternatives. Tylenol, etc., are unrealistic. Exercise is unrealistic when you are in too much pain to move! “ said another patient.

“Anti-anxiety meds are just as addictive. Over the counter pain medicines are not strong enough to cover the pain in a patient with chronic pain. And there are hundreds of pain patients who can't take NSAIDs because of an allergic reaction. Same thing with steroids,” wrote another.

When asked if exercise, weight loss or cognitive behavioral therapy had helped relieve their pain, only about a third of the patients surveyed said they “helped a lot” or “helped a little.” Nearly two-thirds said they “did not help at all.”

Over half said non-opioid medications such as Lyrica, Cymbalta, Neurontin, anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications “did not help at all.”

Over the counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen and NSAIDs were even less helpful. Three out of four patients said they “did not help at all.”

“We must be mindful of the treatment options that the CDC guidelines stress over opioids,” said Barby Ingle, president of the Power of Pain Foundation. “For instance in my case, taking NSAIDS for an extended period (a little over 1 year) caused internal bleeding and ulcers which lead to being hospitalized, a surgical procedure, and months of home nursing and physical therapy that could have been avoided.


“It is important to include a multi-disciplinary approach to care. We have to use non-pharmacological treatments and non-opioid medications in conjunction with more traditional treatments. Using chiropractic care, nutrition, good dental health, better posture, meditation, aqua therapy, etc., can go a long way in the management of chronic pain conditions.”

But the survey found that many of those treatments are simply out of reach for pain patients because they’re not covered by insurance.

When asked if their health insurance covered non-pharmacological treatments such as acupuncture, massage and chiropractic therapy, only 7% said their insurance covered most or all of those therapies.

About a third said their insurance “covers only some and for a limited number of treatments” and over half said their insurance does not cover those treatments. About 4% do not have health insurance.   

“I tried acupuncture and massage, paying out of my pocket, but neither helped. In fact, they hurt. I tried Lyrica, Savella, and Cymbalta. No luck. I do warm water aerobics three days a week WHEN I CAN TAKE MY OPIATES FIRST,” wrote one patient.

Although the CDC didn’t even raise the subject of medical marijuana in its guidelines, many patients volunteered that they were using marijuana for pain relief and that it worked for them.


“Alternative medicine is needed. I am a huge advocate of medicinal marijuana, in addition to opioids to treat my disease,” wrote a patient who suffers from CRPS (Chronic Regional Pain Syndrome).

“If cannabis was legal and accessible, it would greatly lessen the need for prescription pain medication,” said another patient.

“I should be able to get the proper medical marijuana legally. I have tried it from a friend and it helps tremendously. However, I will not purchase it because it is illegal. I pray every day I can get it someday,” said a patient who suffers from lupus, arthritis and other chronic conditions.

The survey found patients were evenly divided on whether they should be required to submit to urine drugs tests for both prescribed medications and illegal drugs.

"In order to receive my monthly pain medication, I must submit to a urine screen and a pill count each and every month. I must (whether they work or not) agree to have steroid injections every few months. While I don't have any problem to submitting to urine screenings or pill counts, I do not like having injections that provide no help. I am trapped playing this game,” said a patient.

“99.9% of pain patients are responsible adults but are treated like toddlers who need constant supervision. Pain patients are sicker, fatter, and poorer because they are pumped full of chemicals and steroids. Forced to be experimental guinea pigs or forced to suffer if they say NO,” said another patient.


"As both a chronic pain patient and a provider I get to view this issue from multiple perspectives. Of course opioids aren't the first line treatment for chronic pain, and when they are used they shouldn't be the only treatment. They are one part of a larger toolkit for managing chronic pain," wrote a registered nurse practitioner.

"There are many fortunate people who are able to manage their pain without medication, or even recover from pain completely using some of the wonderful new interventions we now have available. But there are large numbers of patients out there who have tried all the other medications and dietary changes and injections and PT (physical therapy) modalities and mindfulness. And they are still left with pain that only responds to opiates."

For a complete look at all of the survey result, visit the "CDC Survey Results" tab at the top of this page or click here.