Opioids have been regarded for millennia as among the most effective drugs for the treatment of pain. Their use in the management of acute severe pain and chronic pain related to advanced medical illness is considered the standard of care in most of the world. In contrast, the long-term administration of an opioid for the treatment of chronic noncancer pain continues to be controversial. Concerns related to effectiveness, safety, and abuse liability have evolved over decades, sometimes driving a more restrictive perspective and sometimes leading to a greater willingness to endorse this treatment. The past several decades in the United States have been characterized by attitudes that have shifted repeatedly in response to clinical and epidemiological observations, and events in the legal and regulatory communities. The interface between the legitimate medical use of opioids to provide analgesia and the phenomena associated with abuse and addiction continues to challenge the clinical community, leading to uncertainty about the appropriate role of these drugs in the treatment of pain. This narrative review briefly describes the neurobiology of opioids and then focuses on the complex issues at this interface between analgesia and abuse, including terminology, clinical challenges, and the potential for new agents, such as buprenorphine, to influence practice.
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