Study Casts Doubt on Effectiveness of Opioids for Back Pain

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June 29, 2023 -- Researchers in Australia say their new study revealed that opioids had no effect on pain in the lower back or neck.

“Opioids should not be recommended for acute non-specific low back pain or neck pain given that we found no significant difference in pain severity compared with placebo. This finding calls for a change in the frequent use of opioids for these conditions,” they wrote in The Lancet.

The study involved more than 340 patients and was “quite a surprise to us,” said one of the study’s authors, Andrew McLachlan. He is dean of pharmacy at the Sydney Pharmacy School. "We thought there would be some pain relief, but overall there was no difference."

Patients with pain for less than 12 weeks were recruited for the study from primary care clinics and emergency departments in Sydney. They were randomly assigned to the opioid group or the placebo group. The study lasted six years.

“At six weeks, there was no significant difference in the pain scores between the two groups,” NPR reported. “The same was true after 12 weeks.”

Researchers also said people who received opioids had a greater risk of abusing them a year later.

NPR said this research focused on “garden-variety back pain” that lasts up to three months, compared to previous research that looked at opioid use to relieve chronic back pain.

"It's going to call into question a lot of the major guidelines that we have about how to treat people's back pain," Mark Bicket, MD, an anesthesiologist at the University of Michigan and director of research on opioids and pain, told NPR.