What the JAMA Opioid Study Didn’t Find

By Roger Chriss, Columnist

A recent opioid study published in the Journal Of the American Medical Association (JAMA)  evaluated pain management in patients with hip and knee osteoarthritis and low back pain.

The study by VA researcher Erin Krebs, MD, and colleagues found that “treatment with opioids was not superior to treatment with nonopioid medications for improving pain-related function over 12 months.”  

That finding was widely and erroneously reported in the news media as meaning that opioids are ineffective for all types of chronic pain.

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But the most fascinating result of the study – the one not being reported -- is what wasn’t found. The 108 people in the study who took opioids for a year did not develop signs of opioid misuse, abuse or addiction, and did not develop opioid-induced hyperalgesia – a heightened sensitivity to pain.

And no one died of an overdose.

This is significant because it runs counter to commonly held beliefs in the medical profession about the risks of prescription opioids. Here are a few recent examples:

“Opioids are very addictive and their effectiveness wanes as people habituate to the medication,” Carl Noe, MD, director of a pain clinic at the University of Texas Medical Center wrote in an op/ed in The Texas Tribune.

Don Teater, MD, a family physician in North Carolina, also believes that people on long-term opioid therapy experience dose escalation, which leads to hyperalgesia. “Opioids cause permanent brain changes,” Teater told USA Today.

Krebs herself has made similar comments. "Within a few weeks or months of taking an opioid on a daily basis, your body gets used to that level of opioid, and you need more and more to get the same level of effect,” she told NPR.

But the Krebs study didn’t see any of that happen.

Krebs and colleagues closely monitored the 108 people in the opioid arm of the study, using “multiple approaches to evaluate for potential misuse, including medical record surveillance for evidence of ‘doctor-shopping’ (seeking medication from multiple physicians), diversion, substance use disorder, or death.” They also had participants complete the “Addiction Behavior Checklist” and assessed their alcohol and drug use with surveys and screening tools.

What did Krebs find in the opioid group after 12 months of treatment?

“No deaths, ‘doctor-shopping,’ diversion, or opioid use disorder diagnoses were detected,” she reported. “There were no significant differences in adverse outcomes or potential misuse measures.”

Health-related quality of life and mental health in the opioid group did not significantly differ from the non-opioid group – and their anxiety levels actually improved.  

These are observational findings in the study. They were not a part of what Krebs and colleagues were specifically trying to measure. As the study notes: “This trial did not have sufficient statistical power to estimate rates of death, opioid use disorder, or other serious harms associated with prescribed opioids.”

 ERIN KREBS, MD

ERIN KREBS, MD

But they are valuable observations. They note what didn’t happen in the study. Over 100 people were put on opioid therapy for a year, and none of them showed any signs of dose escalation or opioid-induced hyperalgesia, or any evidence of opioid misuse, abuse or addiction.

Krebs told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that this “could reflect the fact that the study did not enroll patients with addiction histories, and because the VA provided close supervision to all participants during the yearlong study.”

In other words, Krebs and colleagues used an opioid prescribing protocol that achieved an admirable level of patient safety. Their approach is similar to what many pain management practices currently pursue and what the CDC and various state guidelines recommend: Risk assessment before initial prescribing and careful monitoring over time.

The Krebs study provides rare and detailed observations of what happens when people are put on long-term opioid therapy. A lot of what is claimed about dose escalation, opioid-induced hyperalgesia, and misuse or abuse didn't happen at all.

This outcome demonstrates that long-term opioid therapy can be safe and effective, and may be useful in treating other chronic conditions, from intractable neuropathies to painful genetic disorders. That’s worth reporting too, isn’t it?

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Roger Chriss lives with 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.