At one time, prescription painkillers were rarely used. But starting in the 1980s, there was growing concern that many people in chronic pain weren't adequately treated. Pain came to be considered the "fifth vital sign," Collins noted, and doctors began to increasingly turn to narcotic painkillers.
The drugs do bring quick relief -- at least in the short term. "It takes a lot longer to talk to patients about physical therapy, exercise and diet changes to lose weight, which might help with musculoskeletal pain," Collins said.
Plus, he noted, for people who have long been sedentary, the idea of becoming active when they're in pain could seem daunting.
"I think a lot of providers and patients may be overvaluing the immediate relief, and not taking the long view," Collins said.
Besides the risk of addiction, there are more common side effects of the drugs, such as chronic constipation. Also, research suggests that long-term use of prescription painkillers can ultimately worsen chronic pain, Collins said.
The truth is, Meara said, treating chronic pain is difficult. Common problems such as low back pain have no one-size-fits-all therapy, but a number of non-drug options exist, such as exercise, over-the-counter pain medications, acupuncture and biofeedback.
"We need to be cautious about moving to these drugs too quickly," Meara said. "And I think we need to be concerned about whether we're taking care of these patients adequately. We need to do a better job."
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on prescription painkiller risks.
SOURCES: Ellen Meara, Ph.D., associate professor, Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice, Lebanon, N.H.; Eric Collins, M.D., physician-in
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