Are Opioids Beneficial for Chronic Back and Osteoarthritis Pain?

Although most clinical guidelines recommend against opioids for patients with chronic back and musculoskeletal pain, opioids still are prescribed frequently for these conditions. In this randomized trial, conducted in the Minneapolis Veterans Affairs system, researchers randomized 240 patients (mean age, 58; mostly men) with moderate-to-severe chronic back pain or hip or knee osteoarthritis pain to flexible opioid or nonopioid regimens. Patients who were receiving long-term opioid therapy were excluded, as were those with substance abuse disorders or poor prognoses.

Opioid regimens started with immediate-release morphine or oxycodone or hydrocodone/acetaminophen and progressed to sustained-action morphine or oxycodone or transdermal fentanyl, all titrated to 100-mg morphine-equivalents, as needed. Nonopioid regimens started with acetaminophen and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and progressed to tricyclic antidepressants, gabapentinoids, topical analgesics, serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors, and tramadol as needed. Patients pursued nonpharmacologic treatments as desired. Both groups were monitored in-person monthly until stable; subsequently, patients were monitored every 1 to 3 months (usually by telephone).

At 12 months, improvement in pain-related function was similar between the two groups. Pain intensity was significantly lower in the nonopioid group than in the opioid group, although this improvement was of borderline clinical significance. The opioid group had significantly more medication-related symptoms; adverse events did not differ between groups.


This nonblinded trial mimics real-life practice with its patient heterogeneity and wide range of medication choices. No benefit, and some potential harm, seems to be associated with use of opioids in patients with chronic back or osteoarthritis pain. Note, however, that several of the medications used by patients in this study’s control group — including acetaminophen, NSAIDs, and gabapentinoids — also are ineffective or minimally effective in patients with chronic low back pain

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