Health & Wellness

Opioids Are a Bad Choice for Chronic Pain

They won’t make it better in the long run—and they can make things worse

By Wendy Haaf

The long-term use of narcotic medications such as oxycodone to deal with chronic nerve pain doesn’t improve one’s ability to function from day to day—and it may in fact modestly impair that ability while increasing substantially the risk for problems such as depression, according to the results of a study at the Mayo Clinic in the United States.

In a group of 2,892 people with polyneuropathy—a painful condition affecting the nerves—those who took opioids for pain continuously for at least 90 days were later found to be nearly twice as likely as those who didn’t use opioids regularly to have to rely on a cane or other support.

The study findings, published in the journal JAMA Neurology, also linked opioid therapy with a nearly 50% increase in the odds of experiencing depression, a 2.85-fold boost in the likelihood of developing a physical dependence on the medication, and a more than fivefold increase in the odds for overdose.

An editorial accompanying the results observed that “although opioid medications are very effective for the management of severe acute pain, their benefits for chronic pain are questionable.” Long-term use can lead to a patient coming to tolerate the drug, the editorial noted, which can lead to higher doses and therefore the possibility of overdose, as well as of physical dependence and addiction.

Photo: iStock/studiokovac.