Opioid Treatment 10-year Longevity Survey Final Report

Patients in this study were found to be functioning quite well after 10 or more years on generally stable opioid dosages—with the vast majority able to care for themselves and even drive.
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About eighteen months ago, I approached the publisher of Practical Pain Management to assist in a survey of long-term, opioid-treated pain patients. Rightly, as any good publisher, he asked why should I go to the time and expense to do a longevity survey? I then presented him my laundry list of reasons for doing the survey. Some explanations of my reasons for doing this survey are given here. Quite frankly this survey was needed, since we simply have little data on opioid long-term treatment.1,2 Also, opioid treatment is constantly under attack, so it seems logical to see if the popularity of this treatment is justified.

Reasons for the Survey

First, recall that we have just finished the “Decade of Pain.” Ushering in this decade were many laws, regulations, and guidelines—promulgated in many states—that encouraged physicians to prescribe opioids without fear of legal reprisal. Did anyone get help this decade? Did this political and humanitarian effort pay off?

Secondly, my own experience in practice was the predominant factor. I started my pain practice in 1975 while serving as a Public Health Physician in East Los Angeles County. Cancer and post-polio patients needed ‘narcotics’ (the common name prior to the more correct usage ‘opioids’) treatment for their severe chronic pain. I’ve now followed some chronic pain patients still taking opioids after 25 to 30 years.1 Also, I was a government consultant in the 1970s on Howard Hughes who managed to survive 30 years with intractable pain after a 1946 plane crash. His average opioid dosage over that time period was about 200 mg of morphine equivalence. But are my patients unusual or simply responsive to an overzealous clinician? Do opioid-treated patients in the hands of other physicians do just as well over a long period?

A little over a year ago there was another reason to do a longevity survey. At that time there was a vitriolic, anti-opioid propaganda campaign being waged. Some prominent academic institutions, pharmaceutical companies, professional organizations, and journals, almost in unison, essentially claimed that opioids shouldn’t be prescribed due to hyperalgesia or other as-yet unnamed complications. Some parties stated that opioids, if prescribed at all, should have a dosage restricted to some arbitrary number such as 200mg of morphine equivalence a day. Some claims fundamentally suggested that pain should only be treated with non-opioids, because opioids actually “cause pain.” Amazingly, some detoxification centers actually advertised for “clients” on the basis that the person’s pain would be cured if the patient spent $10K or $20K to detoxify from opioids. Needless to say, the anti-opioid campaign was hardly backed by bonafide medical management pain practitioners or scientific studies. So what was needed was a simple survey to see if there are long-term opioid-treated patients who are still doing well.

What the Survey Can’t Determine

This survey was not intended or designed to answer some ancillary questions. Not answered is which opioids are superior or could patients have done as well without opioids? Also, it wasn’t intended to determine optimal dosage or complications. The intent was clear and simple: Do some opioid-treated patients improve pain control, function better, and enhance their quality of life over a 10-year period?

Survey Methods

In early 2009, an advertisement was placed in this publication to identify any physician who had a cohort of chronic pain patients they had treated with opioids for 10 or more years and were willing to share outcome data. Three physicians, one each from Kentucky, Louisiana, and California, reported a total of 76 patients who have been treated with opioids for 10 or more years. These, together with the 24 patients treated by this author,1 provide a cohort of 100 patients who have been treated with opioids for 10 or more years and serve as subjects for this survey. Physicians completed a survey questionnaire for each patient that inquired about demographic status, cause of pain, opioids currently used, basic physical functions, activities of daily living, and stability of opioid dosage.

Results and Findings

Patients in this study appeared typical of most chronic pain patients in that they are primarily middle age or older and have degenerative diseases of the spine, joints, or peripheral nerves (see Tables 1 and 2). Most have maintained on one opioid, although some patients required two or three. The majority have been on stable dosages for many years (see Table 3). Despite the longevity of treatment, most function quite well. The vast majority of patients report good function in that they can dress, read, attend social functions, drive, and ambulate without assistance (see Table 4). Almost half (45%) reported they had been on a stable opioid dosage for at least 3 years.

First published on: January 1, 2010