Prescription opioids like oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, and morphine have long been considered some of the most helpful drugs for managing acute pain, where the body is immediately reacting to trauma or injury. Each year, over 200 million opioid prescriptions are given out in the United States.
Unfortunately, the rates of opioid abuse and overdose deaths have skyrocketed in recent years, leading healthcare providers and patients alike to be cautious about the use of opioids. And now it turns out that there is another reason to avoid opioids: they may not be the most effective treatment for acute pain after all.
Do opioids work better than other drugs?
A recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association throws into question how well opioid drugs actually treat acute pain.
In the study, researchers assigned 416 emergency room patients with moderate-to-severe pain to one of four treatment groups. Three of the treatment groups received a combination of a common opioid painkiller (either oxycodone, hydrocodone, or codeine) plus 300 mg of acetaminophen, a common non-opioid pain medication often sold over the counter as Tylenol. The fourth group received 400 mg of ibuprofen, a non-opioid painkiller, plus 1,000 mg of acetaminophen.
The result? All four groups experienced the same levels of pain relief. While opioid drugs did help to reduce pain, they were no more effective than a combination of non-opioid painkillers.
What are other options for pain treatment?
While opioids are usually given for acute pain, some of the following options also work well for chronic pain, or pain that lasts longer than six months.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
Ibuprofen, naproxen, and aspirin are known as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). They control pain, lower fevers, and reduce inflammation. NSAIDs are often considered to be the first line of defense for acute pain, especially pain that doesn’t respond to non-drug treatments.
NSAIDs are available over-the-counter with brand names including Advil, Motrin, Aleve, Bayer, and Excedrin. NSAIDs are also available in prescription strength, with common brand names like Celebrex, Naprelan, Anaprox, Voltaren, and Feldene.
One word of caution: long-term use of NSAIDs can lead to stomach distress or bleeding in your gastrointestinal tract, and the FDA warns that non-aspirin NSAIDs may increase the risk of heart disease and stroke.
Acetaminophen is used on its own as a painkiller and is also an active ingredient in many combination medicines for pain and colds. It is a popular over-the-counter option, sold under brand names like Tylenol. Acetaminophen is especially helpful in addressing acute pain for conditions like headache, arthritis, and cancer pain.
Acetaminophen does not cause the gastrointestinal or cardiovascular side effects of NSAIDs, but taking amounts in excess of the recommended dosage may lead to liver damage or even liver failure. Because acetaminophen is present in so many medications, check whether other medications you’re taking contain acetaminophen as well.
A category of antidepressants called tricyclic antidepressants have the most evidence for treating pain, especially nerve pain. Imipramine (Tofranil), nortriptyline (Pamelor), desipramine (Norpramin), and amitryptiline (Elavil) are tricyclic antidepressants. While these drugs can be helpful, they aren’t effective for everyone.
Some evidence shows that two other categories of antidepressants–selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as fluoxetine (Prozac), or serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) such as duloxetine (Cymbalta)–are also helpful for chronic pain, but more research is needed.
Anti-epileptics can be taken to address chronic nerve pain and chronic pain from conditions like diabetes, shingles, chemotherapy, herniated disks, and fibromyalgia. Research on how well anti-epileptic medications work for pain is unclear. Some people may receive significant benefits while others may not receive any pain relief at all.
Newer anti-epileptic drugs such as gabapentin (Neurontin), and pregabalin (Lyrica) have more evidence of being effective painkillers than older drugs, and they carry fewer side effects. But, some studies have shown that older antiepileptic drugs such as carbamazepine (Tegretol) and phenytoin (Dilantin) can also help for certain pain conditions. However, these older medications cause more side effects.
Corticosteriods, commonly referred to as just steroids, decrease inflammation and reduce the activity of the immune system. They can reduce swelling and pain for conditions like cancer, back injuries, arthritis, joint pain, and nerve pain. Steroids can be helpful for short-term treatment of acute pain and are also used for the management of some chronic pain conditions., Common steroids used for pain relief are dexamethasone (DexPak), prednisone (Deltasone), and prednisolone (Prelone).
Steroids can be taken orally, applied as a cream, injected, or inhaled. Steroids do come with side effects such as weight gain, high blood pressure, and weakened immune system. Taking low doses of steroids for short periods can minimize those side effects. Injecting steroids directly into an area of pain also reduces side effects and promotes targeted treatment of the affected area.
Non-drug treatments like exercise, physical therapy, yoga, acupuncture, cognitive behavioral therapy, biofeedback, chiropractic, and relaxation training can provide pain relief, especially for chronic pain., In fact, organizations as diverse as the American College of Physicians, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend non-drug treatments as the first course of action for chronic pain. Although side effects for non-drug treatments tend to be minimal, be sure to consult with a healthcare provider before beginning any new treatment activities.