Over-the-counter as good as prescription opioid drugs for chronic pain, study says

As opioid crisis continues, ibuprofen and acetaminophen may help

A recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that opioid-based pain medications in some cases aren’t any better for treating chronic pain than over-the-counter medications such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen.

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The study followed 240 patients, mostly men, with serious chronic pain from conditions such as back issues and osteoarthritis in the knee. The study split participants into an opioid group and a non-opioid group. They were asked to rate how bad their pain was and how it affected their lives over the course of a year.

The results showed that the group that took opioids had more pain and more side effects. The group that took over-the-counter drugs reported less pain on a scale of 1 to 10. The non-opioid group scored, on average, a half-point lower on the pain scale.

“We always recommend that patients use the lowest level of pain medication to help make them comfortable,” said James M. Frazier, M.D., vice president, medical affairs and quality, Norton Healthcare. “Of course, there can be a difference between short-term pain control, such as after a major surgery, and long-term control for chronic conditions. This study certainly makes a good case for opioid alternatives.”

In addition to being highly addictive, opioid drugs have side effects that can include sleepiness and cramps. A person gets used to a certain dosage after a few weeks or months, many times causing them to take more to relieve pain. That can lead to addiction.

Related: Some pain is normal and can be valuable to getting better

The opioid crisis

Nearly every day on average, at least one person dies from an opioid overdose in Jefferson County, Kentucky.

Norton Healthcare has created an Opioid Stewardship Committee to find solutions to reduce the number of opioids in the community. The committee is working to change prescription practices based on changes suggested by The Joint Commission, a health care accreditation organization.

“If you come to Norton Healthcare for pain control, it’s important to know that you may be treated with alternatives to opioid drugs, such as over-the-counter medications, physical therapy and other therapies as needed,” Dr. Frazier said.


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