What happens to chronic pain after discontinuing opioids?

The number of opioid painkillers prescribed in the United States peaked in 2010 and has been declining since that time. Increases in prescriptions of opioid medications for chronic pain have been accompanied by increases in uncertainties about the long-term effectiveness after discontinuance of opioid medications. There is little known about what happens to individual pain scores after being discontinued on opioids, although this is a common occurrence, particularly as opioid policy continues to evolve.

Sterling McPherson, an associate professor at the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine, along with colleague Travis Lovejoy, an assistant professor at Oregon Health and Science University and Clinical Psychologist, recently published research finding that patients who used opioids for non-cancer chronic pain management actually experience improved pain scores when they stop using opioids. Changes in pain following discontinuation were characterized by slight but statistically non-significant declines in pain intensity over 12 months post-discontinuation. These findings can help physicians consider the risks of opioid therapy and the benefits of tapering dosage sooner rather than later.

Most Recent funding:

The paper published in the journal Pain, “Changes in pain intensity after discontinuation of long-term opioid therapy for chronic noncancer pain” helped lead to another grant from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Health Services Research & Development Center to Improve Veteran Involvement in Care at the VA Portland Health Care System. This grant allows Drs. McPherson and Lovejoy to collect qualitative and quantitative patient data for 4 years on pain levels associated with opioid use, as the original Pain paper used only administrative data. They hope to collect rich data that will yield statistically significant findings, thus further informing medical professionals and the public on how to use opioids in a safe way.

You can find the journal abstract here. If you have trouble finding the full article, contact s.mcpherson@wsu.edu for assistance.

Media Coverage

Research shows stopping opioid treatment doesn’t worsen chronic pain. The Spokesman-Review

National Pain report: Does Chronic pain get worse, better, or remain same after stopping opioids? National Pain Report

For patients with chronic pain, opioids may not work at all. The Inlander

Listen to an interview with Dr. Sterling McPherson. Spokane Public Radio