NIH report on long-term opioid treatment cites lack of data, research needs



The striking lack of data on the effectiveness and risks of long-term opioid treatment for the increasing number of people in the United States with chronic pain is reflected in the recommendations made by an expert panel convened by the National Institutes of Health.

To address the role of opioids in the treatment of chronic pain, the panelists met during an NIH Pathways to Prevention workshop in late September where more than 20 invited experts spoke on the topic. The panel produced a draft report shortly after the meeting concluded and received public comments, and the final report has been published on the NIH website. An abridged version of the panel’s final report, which highlights key issues surrounding the use of opioids and chronic pain treatment and provides recommendations on the types of research needed in this area, was published online Jan. 13 in the Annals of Internal Medicine (doi:10.7326/M14-2775).

Dr. David Reuben

“The overriding question posed to the panel is whether we as a nation are currently approaching chronic pain in the best possible manner that maximizes effectiveness and minimizes harm. The panel determined that the answer was an unequivocal no,” Dr. David Reuben, the panel chair and lead author of the report, said during a Jan. 16 telebriefing that was held to review the panel’s findings and recommendations. “We hope that the information presented in the panel report will shed light on the issues that need further attention and help facilitate research and better practice to improve outcomes for patients,” added Dr. Reuben, who is chief of geriatric medicine and professor of medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The first recommendation in the panel’s position paper is that federal and non-federal agencies should fund research to identify what types of pain, diseases, and patients “are most likely to benefit and incur harm” from opioids. Agencies should also fund the development and evaluation of multi-disciplinary pain interventions, including cost-benefit analyses, and fund research to “develop and validate research measurement tools” that identify patient risk and outcomes, “related to long-term opioid use that can be adapted for clinical settings,” the panel recommended.

Dr. David Steffens
Dr. David Steffens

The one recommendation that directly pertains to current clinical practice states that “in the absence of definitive evidence, clinicians and health care systems should follow current guidelines by professional societies about which patients and which types of pain should be treated with opioids and about how best to monitor patients and mitigate risk for harm.” In addition, the report “identifies several key evidence gaps and research priorities that must be addressed so that physicians can recognize patients for whom opioids are most appropriate and use optimal regimens for these patients.”

Considering professional society guidelines is one of the main take home-messages of the report for clinicians, Dr. David Steffens, another panelist and author of the paper, said during the telebriefing. Dr. Steffens, professor and chair of the department of psychiatry, University of Connecticut, Farmington, observed that during the workshop, “the core part of what we heard was an astounding lack of data on efficacy of these drugs,” and noted that the majority of recommendations are “forward-looking in terms of a need to get more data.”

Among the main conclusions of the position paper is that while opioids are “clearly the best treatment for some patients with chronic pain ... there are probably more effective approaches” for many other patients. “The challenge is to identify the conditions in patients for which opioid use is most appropriate, the optimal regimens, the alternatives for those who are unlikely to benefit from opioids, and the best approach to ensuring that every patient’s needs are met by a patient-centered health care system,” the report concludes.

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