Opioids Don't Treat Chronic Pain Any Better Than Ibuprofen: Study

Opioid-based pain pills like morphine and oxycodone aren't any better at treating some chronic pain than over-the-counter drugs like Tylenol or Advil, according to a rigorous new study published Tuesday in The Journal of the American Medical Association.

Researchers followed 240 people being treated at a Veterans Affairs hospital in Minneapolis for serious, chronic pain for over a year; most of the study participants were men. The participants told the researchers how bad their pain was and how it was affecting their lives over the course of a year.

The group that took opioids didn't do particularly well in either category—in fact, the group that wasn't on opioids reported less pain. The group scored, on average, a half-point lower on a "pain intensity" scale ranging from one to 10.

oxycodone chronic pain
Oxycodone pain pills. A new study following patients being treated for chronic pain found that those taking opioid-based pain pills didn't experience less pain than those taking over-the-counter pain relievers. John Moore/Getty Images

It would be one thing if opioid-based pain pills simply did nothing for people with chronic pain—but opioids have side effects like sleepiness and cramps and carry a serious risk of addiction.

This study found that side effects were more common among the people taking the opioids. There may be a reason for that. "Within a few weeks or months of taking an opioid on a daily basis, your body gets used to that level of opioid, and you need more and more to get the same level of effect," study author Dr. Erin Krebs told NPR.

"We already knew opioids were more dangerous than other treatment options because they put people at risk for accidental death and addiction," Krebs told Reuters. "This study shows that extra risk doesn't come with any extra benefit."

About 116 people die each day from opioid abuse, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Despite political pressure—including lawsuits targeting drug manufacturers, the declaration of a public health emergency and a federal opioid commission—the crisis does not appear to be subsiding.

On Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported the number of overdose cases in Midwestern emergency rooms had increased by 70 percent over the past 14 months. On Monday, another study reported that opioid overdoses among children had doubled between 2012 and 2015.