Narcotics: Too Often Prescribed for Chronic Pain

We have an epidemic of prescription drug abuse – and the CDC, in muted terms stated – opioid drugs like Oxycontin, Percocet, and Vicodin are prescribed too often for chronic pain, when there is little evidence these medications provide adequate treatment. Physicians are encouraged to provide other non-narcotic therapies first.

People with pain, managed by opioids do become addicted to the narcotics- some physicians use to be believe this would never happen. Those prescribed opioids for chronic pain will require more narcotics for their addiction and receive less benefit from narcotics as time goes on. However, the risk of death from narcotics remain the same (tolerance to the drug builds quickly). The overdose epidemic is driven by physicians.

Physical therapy, exercise therapy, and cognitive (psychologic) therapy have been shown to help relieve chronic pain as well as non-narcotic medications such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory pain medications. Those should be the first therapies provided. Therapies that DO NOT WORK for chronic pain also include acupuncture and chiropractic.



The facts:

  1. Prescription drugs such as Percocet, Vicodin, and Oxycontin are as addictive as heroin
  2. 40 people a day in the US die from an overdose of pain killers
  3. Death rates from cancer and heart disease falling, death rates from opioids increasing
  4. 2 million adults in the US are addicted to opioid painkillers
  5. In the last five years 165,000 people died from an overdose of opioid drugs
  6. Opioid drug prescriptions skyrocketed in the last ten years
  7. In 2012 259 million prescriptions written for opioids
  8. When opioids taken at high levels they slow down or stop people from breathing

CDC recommendations

1. Nonpharmacologic therapy and nonopioid pharmacologic therapy are preferred for chronic pain. Clinicians should consider opioid therapy only if expected benefits for both pain and function are anticipated to outweigh risks to the patient. If opioids are used, they should be combined with nonpharmacologic therapy and nonopioid pharmacologic therapy, as appropriate (recommendation category: A, evidence type: 3).

2. Before starting opioid therapy for chronic pain, clinicians should establish treatment goals with all patients, including realistic goals for pain and function, and should consider how opioid therapy will be discontinued if benefits do not outweigh risks. Clinicians should continue opioid therapy only if there is clinically meaningful improvement in pain and function that outweighs risks to patient safety (recommendation category: A, evidence type: 4).

3. Before starting and periodically during opioid therapy, clinicians should discuss with patients known risks and realistic benefits of opioid therapy and patient and clinician responsibilities for managing therapy (recommendation category: A, evidence type: 3).

4. When starting opioid therapy for chronic pain, clinicians should prescribe immediate-release opioids instead of extended-release/long-acting (ER/LA) opioids (recommendation category: A, evidence type: 4).

5. When opioids are started, clinicians should prescribe the lowest effective dosage. Clinicians should use caution when prescribing opioids at any dosage, should carefully reassess evidence of individual benefits and risks when considering increasing dosage to ≥50 morphine milligram equivalents (MME)/day, and should avoid increasing dosage to ≥90 MME/day or carefully justify a decision to titrate dosage to ≥90 MME/day (recommendation category: A, evidence type: 3).

6. Long-term opioid use often begins with treatment of acute pain. When opioids are used for acute pain, clinicians should prescribe the lowest effective dose of immediate-release opioids and should prescribe no greater quantity than needed for the expected duration of pain severe enough to require opioids. Three days or less will often be sufficient; more than seven days will rarely be needed (recommendation category: A, evidence type: 4).

7. Clinicians should evaluate benefits and harms with patients within 1 to 4 weeks of starting opioid therapy for chronic pain or of dose escalation. Clinicians should evaluate benefits and harms of continued therapy with patients every 3 months or more frequently. If benefits do not outweigh harms of continued opioid therapy, clinicians should optimize other therapies and work with patients to taper opioids to lower dosages or to taper and discontinue opioids (recommendation category: A, evidence type: 4).

8. Before starting and periodically during continuation of opioid therapy, clinicians should evaluate risk factors for opioid-related harms. Clinicians should incorporate into the management plan strategies to mitigate risk, including considering offering naloxone when factors that increase risk for opioid overdose, such as history of overdose, history of substance use disorder, higher opioid dosages (≥50 MME/day), or concurrent benzodiazepine use, are present (recommendation category: A, evidence type: 4).

9. Clinicians should review the patient’s history of controlled substance prescriptions using state prescription drug monitoring program (PDMP) data to determine whether the patient is receiving opioid dosages or dangerous combinations that put him or her at high risk for overdose. Clinicians should review PDMP data when starting opioid therapy for chronic pain and periodically during opioid therapy for chronic pain, ranging from every prescription to every 3 months (recommendation category: A, evidence type: 4).

10. When prescribing opioids for chronic pain, clinicians should use urine drug testing before starting opioid therapy and consider urine drug testing at least annually to assess for prescribed medications as well as other controlled prescription drugs and illicit drugs (recommendation category: B, evidence type: 4).

11. Clinicians should avoid prescribing opioid pain medication and benzodiazepines concurrently whenever possible (recommendation category: A, evidence type: 3).

12. Clinicians should offer or arrange evidence-based treatment (usually medication-assisted treatment with buprenorphine or methadone in combination with behavioral therapies) for patients with opioid use disorder (recommendation category: A, evidence type: 2).
Evidence Types

Based on study design as well as a function of limitations in study design or implementation, imprecision of estimates, variability in findings, indirectness of evidence, publication bias, magnitude of treatment effects, dose-response gradient, and constellation of plausible biases that could change effects.

Type 1 evidence: Randomized clinical trials or overwhelming evidence from observational studies.

Type 2 evidence: Randomized clinical trials with important limitations, or exceptionally strong evidence from observational studies.

Type 3 evidence: Observational studies or randomized clinical trials with notable limitations.

Type 4 evidence: Clinical experience and observations, observational studies with important limitations, or randomized clinical trials with several major limitations.


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Dr. Terry Simpson About Dr. Terry Simpson
Dr. Terry Simpson received his undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Chicago where he spent several years in the Kovler Viral Oncology laboratories doing genetic engineering. He found he liked people more than petri dishes, and went to medical school. Dr. Simpson, a weight loss surgeon is an advocate of culinary medicine. The first surgeon to become certified in Culinary Medicine, he believes teaching people to improve their health through their food and in their kitchen. On the other side of the world, he has been a leading advocate of changing health care to make it more "relationship based," and his efforts awarded his team the Malcolm Baldrige award for healthcare in 2011 for the NUKA system of care in Alaska and in 2013 Dr Simpson won the National Indian Health Board Area Impact Award. A frequent contributor to media outlets discussing health related topics and advances in medicine, he is also a proud dad, husband, author, cook, and surgeon “in that order.” For media inquiries, please visit

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