New data on Opioid painkillers - what does it mean

A selection of pills and tablets.

Earlier this month, Public Health England published its review of prescribed medicines. It looked at people’s dependence on them, as well as ways to help those who want to reduce their reliance.

What did the review look at?

The review covered adults and looked at the way five different types of medicines: are being prescribed:

  • opioids for chronic non-cancer pain (these are commonly prescribed for people with arthritis pain)
  • benzodiazepines (mostly prescribed for anxiety)
  • z-drugs (sleeping tablets with effects similar to benzodiazepines)
  • gabapentin and pregabalin (together called gabapentinoids and used to treat epilepsy, neuropathic pain and, in the case of pregabalin, anxiety)
  • antidepressants

They reviewed how many people are being prescribed these medications and how long for.

How is this relevant to people with arthritis?

We know that many people with arthritis are being prescribed opioid painkillers. In fact, one study has shown that over a one-year period, six out of ten people (59%) with a musculoskeletal condition received at least one prescription for opioid medication.

Opioids are a type of pain relief medication. Some of the most popular opioid painkillers are: codeine; tramadol; buprenorphine; morphine; oxycodone; fentanyl and tapentadol.

They can be an effective treatment for many people. But for others they don’t provide lasting pain relief and can cause harmful side effects such as addiction.

What did PHE find?

The report found that 5.3 million people were prescribed an opioid painkiller in 2017 to 2018. Over half a million people received them continuously for three years or longer.

They also found that rates of prescribing were higher among women and older people. At the same time, prescriptions for opioid medications are decreasing, after increasing for many years.

Are there other effective treatments?

Yes, there’s self-management like exercise, physiotherapy and talking therapies. But we don’t think enough people have access to these other treatments. That’s why we’re calling for:

  • Better access to effective management options, including supported physical activity, support for mental wellbeing and support to remain in or return to work
  • More training and support for doctors, nurses and pharmacists to be able to improve the treatment and care people in pain receive
  • People with arthritis to be offered more information and the opportunity to co-create a care and support plan that is right for them – whether that’s through drugs, surgery, or other treatments like physiotherapy, exercise plans or talking therapies
  • More research funding into the causes of and treatments for pain

What shall I do if I’m taking opioid painkillers?

Opioids are an effective treatment for many people with arthritis and will continue being prescribed by clinicians because there’s evidence that they work.

You should continue taking the medicines as prescribed by your doctor. If you are worried about this report and its findings, do not stop taking the medicines. Instead, talk to your doctor or pharmacist about any questions or doubts.

Talk to us

If you’d like to speak to someone about this, you can also call our helpline on 0800 5200 520 or to find out more, use our online resources.

Our work to help people living with persistent MSK pain:

  • Research: We recently announced that we’re investing £12 million, which is being matched by a further £12 million by UK government to improve understanding and lay the foundations for better treatments for the millions of people who live with persistent musculoskeletal pain. This is just one part of our wider commitment to pain research, which we’re leading by bringing together Government and other funders with research teams, to co-develop new solutions in partnership with people living in pain.
  • Campaigning: We have influenced best practice guidance for doctors, worked with Public Health England to develop a new five-year plan to support people with arthritis and other painful MSK conditions to improve their quality of life through exercise and wellbeing, and invested in a UK-wide long-term campaign to shift public attitudes to arthritis and living in pain.
  • Services: Through our helpline, virtual assistant, website and community groups, we provide support and information to people living in pain. We partner and fund to offer non-drug options like exercise programmes for people living with MSK pain.