The nexus of opioids, pain, and addiction: Challenges and solutions

Henningfield JE, Ashworth J, Gerlach KK, Simone B, Schnoll SH
Preventive Medicine, 128:10582, 2019.
Special Issue on Opioids Addiction and Pain, 2019.

Pain and addiction are complex disorders with many commonalities. Beneficial outcomes for both disorders can be achieved through similar principles such as individualized medication selection and dosing, comprehensive multi-modal therapies, and judicious modification of treatment as indicated by the patient’s status. This is implicit in the term “medication assisted treatment” (MAT) for opioid use disorders (OUD), and is equally important in pain management; however, for many OUD and pain patients, medication is central to the treatment plan and should neither be denied nor withdrawn if critical to patient well-being.

Most patients prescribed opioids for pain do not develop OUD, and most people with OUD do not develop it as a result of appropriately prescribed opioids. Nonetheless, concerns about undertreatment of pain in the late 20th century likely contributed to inappropriate prescribing of opioids. This, coupled with a shortfall in OUD treatment capacity and the unfettered flood of inexpensive heroin and fentanyl, behavioral economics and other factors facilitated the 21st century opioid epidemic.

Presently, injudicious reductions in opioid prescriptions for pain are contributing to increased suffering and suicides by pain patients as well as worsening disparities in pain management for ethnic minority and low-income people. Many of these people are turning to illicit opioids, and no evidence shows that the reduction in opioid prescriptions is reducing OUD or overdose deaths. Comprehensive, science-based policies that increase access to addiction treatment for all in need and better serve people with pain are vital to addressing both pain and addiction.