Even after overdose and addiction risks became known, opioid prescriptions continued on the belief that the drugs were more effective at relieving pain than other medications. New research suggests that may not be the case. In a study in JAMA, scientists say opioids appear to be no better at treating chronic pain than non-opioids like acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil), and lidocaine, which are much less addictive. In a trial of 240 patients—mostly middle-aged white males who'd endured at least six months of pain in their back, hips, or knees—non-opioid users actually experienced more pain relief than patients using morphine, oxycodone, or hydrocodone, though not in a way that was statistically significant, reports the Los Angeles Times. "There was no significant difference in pain-related function between the 2 groups over 12 months," say the researchers.
Half of the trial patients at Minneapolis VA Health Care System were given opioids, while the other half were given acetaminophen and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Both groups reported an average pain score of 5.4 out of 10 at the start of the trial. But after a year, opioid users reported an average score of 4, compared to 3.5 for non-opioid users, reports Reuters. Study author Erin Krebs blames opioid tolerance. "Your body gets used to that level of opioid, and you need more and more to get the same level of effect," she tells NBC News, adding this might explain why opioid users suffered more side effects like constipation, fatigue, and nausea. Since the added risks of opioids come with no advantage over other drugs, Krebs says people with chronic pain just "shouldn't start opioids." (That goes for kids, too.)