Opioids vs. NSAIDs for Chronic Pain

 By Roger Chriss, Columnist

The latest shot in the debate over opioids versus non-steroidal inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) for chronic pain has been fired, with the Minneapolis Star Tribune reporting on a new study that found “patients with chronic pain fared no better with the potentially addictive painkillers than they did with non-opioid meds.”

The research was conducted by Erin Krebs, MD, who is investigating the efficacy of medications for osteoarthritis aspart of a study called the Strategies for Prescribing Analgesics Comparative Effectiveness (SPACE).

(Editor's note: Dr. Krebs appeared in a lecture series on opioid prescribing that was funded by the Steve Rummler Hope Foundation, which is the fiscal sponsor of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP), an anti-opioid activist group.)

Her research involved 240 veterans who were treated for back, hip and knee pain with either opioids or non-opioids for 12 months. She presented her findings recently at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center and the Society of General Internal Medicine.

"For long-term treatment of chronic back pain and osteoarthritis pain, non-opioid medication therapy is superior to opioid therapy for both pain and side effects,” Dr. Krebs said.

A summary of the SPACE research states that the “findings showed no significant advantage of opioid therapy compared with non-opioid medication therapy.”


Naturally, critics of opioid prescribing weighed in.

“If pain doctors still think these medicines are effective, then they have a lot of explaining to do and their competence and professionalism deserve to be challenged,” said Chris Johnson, MD, who is a board member of PROP as well as the Steve Rummler Hope Foundation.

But the study did not show that opioids were ineffective, only that non-opioids were more effective in this particular study. Thus, pain doctors are justified in claiming they are effective. Of course, so are NSAIDs, but this is not a new or surprise finding. Similar results have been obtained before, though only in shorter-term studies.

Dr. Krebs’ results are an important addition to our understanding of which medications are useful for certain types of pain management. In some cases, NSAIDs may be better than opioids, and in other cases, opioids may be better.

But a response like the one from Dr. Johnson is another example of over-generalization and simplification of a complex medical result, and how anti-opioid activists often spin research findings to fit their agendas.  

It also insults the expertise of physicians like Roger Chou, MD,  a Professor at Oregon Health & Science University’s School of Medicine and one of the lead authors of the CDC guidelines; and Sean Mackey, MD, Chief of the Division of Pain Medicine at Stanford University and immediate past president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine.

In a recent Medscape interview, Dr. Chou said, "I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with maintaining somebody on low doses of opioids, as long as it's doing what it's supposed to in terms of helping their pain and function and not causing harm." 

And in a recent Vox interview, Dr. Mackey said, "The fact is if you go looking, there’s clearly data out there that opioids improve pain. These drugs would have never been approved by the FDA if they didn’t."

More importantly, statements like Dr. Johnson’s ignore the difficult challenges that people with chronic pain conditions face.

"Everything we know about pain is that this is a complex biopsychosocial phenomenon,” said Dr. Chou.

Or as Forest Tennant, MD, put it in Practical Pain Management: “A major point to be made about painful genetic diseases is that pain will almost always worsen as the patient ages.”

Chronic Pain is a Complex Problem

Chronic pain management is thus a long-term endeavor requiring as many tools as possible. What works for one person may be ineffective or even contraindicated in another person. NSAIDs may cause intolerable levels of nausea or gastrointestinal pain, and can be contraindicated in some patients because of kidney disease or bleeding disorders. A major study released this week also found that NSAIDs increase the risk of a heart attack.

The converse also holds. Some people do not tolerate opioids well, have too much brain fog or get constipated. And opioids may be contraindicated in a person with respiratory illness or a history of substance abuse. So having an effective alternative such as NSAIDs is important.

Thus, the “risk profile” of each person must be considered. No medication is perfectly safe. According to the FDA, as many as 20,000 people die from NSAID use every year.

At the same time, opioids have risks. Practical Pain Management reported in 2013 that mortality was higher in patients receiving opioids than other analgesics. The risk of addiction to opioids is well-publicized and makes good headlines, but in chronic pain patients it is less than 5 percent.

The unfortunate reality is that pain management is often a lifelong necessity for people who suffer from chronic pain disorders. Such people don’t have the luxury of ideological debates or moralistic disputes. They need a pain toolkit that is as well-equipped as possible, and they have to deal with medication trade-offs in order to address their medical problems.

Prescribing decisions are best left to experienced physicians who know their patients and the medical conditions they have, and can work with them on the risks and benefits of opioids and NSAIDs.

In reality, there is no “versus” here. Opioids and NSAIDs are both valuable tools for chronic pain management. To pretend that one is inherently better than the other is to miss the essential point: Both work and should be available for use as medically appropriate.

Roger Chriss suffers from Ehlers Danlos syndrome and is a proud member of the Ehlers-Danlos Society.

Roger is a technical consultant in Washington state, where he specializes in mathematics and research.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.