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Taking Opioid Medicine for Chronic Pain: A Fact Sheet for Patients

Helping patients and doctors sort through the evidence on opioid painkillers and chronic pain

Millions of Americans live with chronic noncancer pain from headaches, backaches, arthritis, fibromyalgia, and other sources. This pain can make even ordinary tasks difficult, leading to disability and a reduced quality of life.

Some pain patients are prescribed opioid painkillers like hydrocodone, oxycodone, morphine and fentanyl. While opioids are helpful for acute pain, evidence is lacking that they work consistently long term for chronic pain. Patients taking opioids may also experience side effects or develop dependence and addiction.

As leading researchers on the opioid epidemic, we saw a need for neutral, accessible information on these powerful drugs—specifically aimed at people who are dealing with chronic pain.

We designed a four-page fact sheet for pain patients who are considering whether to take prescription opioids. “Taking Opioid Medicine for Chronic Pain: Talk to Your Doctor About What’s Right for You,” provides a starting point for discussions between patients and their doctors that can hopefully lead to a shared decision that is right for each patient.

Filling a Gap in Information for Patients With Chronic Pain

The fact sheet is designed to facilitate informed decision-making. Using plain language, it explains the difference between chronic and acute pain, lists the risks and side effects of opioids, and provides questions that patients can ask their doctors. Definitions of tolerance, physical dependence, withdrawal and addiction help patients understand what they may go through if they take opioids long-term.

It also introduces other potential treatment options for pain. Physical therapy, massage, cognitive-behavioral therapy, mindfulness, and non-opioid drugs ranging from over-the-counter ibuprofen to antidepressants are all potentially helpful for chronic noncancer pain.

The fact sheet reflects the contributions of RTI experts in medicine, health communication, and substance abuse research with input from Paul Chelminski, a professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a national expert on chronic pain. We also sought the input of chronic pain patients, making revisions based on their feedback.

Information is needed for patients and families to help them make decisions about whether an opioid is the right choice to treat their chronic pain.  Our fact sheet seeks to fill that gap.

When Pain Patients Find Relief, Society Benefits

Chronic pain is widespread and it can create an emotional toll on well-being. The economic toll of chronic pain is estimated at $635 billion, more than the costs of cancer, diabetes, or heart disease.

We are currently exploring ways to use the fact sheet in our own opioid studies and look forward to partnering with others to help patients making informed decisions. Some audiences who might benefit include:

  • Patients with new onset of chronic pain who are exploring treatment options
  • Patients who are currently taking opioids for chronic pain
  • Family members, friends, and caretakers of persons with chronic pain
  • Medical professionals, including pharmacists

Public awareness of the opioid epidemic continues to grow, but that does not necessarily mean that individuals have a clear idea of the risks and benefits of opioids. Our fact sheet can be a tool for empowering patients and ensuring that their quest for relief from chronic pain leads to an effective, appropriate solution.