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Opioids offer limited relief for back pain, survey shows

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Many patients who take opioid painkillers for chronic back pain get limited relief while experiencing side effects ranging from drowsiness to breathing problems, according to research presented at Anesthesiology 2016, the annual meeting of the American Society of Anesthesiologists (ASA).

Patients also worry about the stigma associated with taking opioids, the study found.

Researchers surveyed 2,030 people with low back pain and found that nearly half (941) were currently taking opioids. When asked how successful the opioids were at relieving their pain, only 13% said “very successful”. The most common answer — given by 44% -– was “somewhat successful” and another 31% said “moderately successful”, the ASA reported.

Opioids were considered “not successful” by 12%.

The survey also revealed that 75% of the patients experienced side effects linked to opioids, including constipation (65%), sleepiness (37%), cognitive issues (32%) and dependence (29%).

Significantly, 41% said they felt judged for using opioids. More than two thirds (68%) of the patients had also been treated with antidepressants and only 19% felt a stigma from using those.

“Patients are increasingly aware that opioids are problematic, but don´t know there are alternative treatment options,” said Dr Asokumar Buvanendran, lead author of the study, director of orthopaedic anaesthesia and vice chair for research at Rush University, Chicago, and vice chair of the ASA Committee on Pain Medicine. “While some patients may benefit from opioids for severe pain for a few days after an injury, physicians need to wean their patients off them and use multi-modal therapies instead.”