Defining clinical issues around tolerance, hyperalgesia, and addiction: a quantitative and qualitative outcome study of long-term opioid dosing in a chronic pain practice

J Opioid Manag. 2010 Nov-Dec;6(6):385-95. doi: 10.5055/jom.2010.0036.


Treatment with opioid medications has grown over the past decades, but has been surrounded by some ongoing controversy and debate to whether it is causing more harm than good for patients. To this end, the field of pain management has suffered from a lack of clarity about some basic definitions on concepts such as tolerance and hyperalgesia. Some characterize these issues as inevitable parts of opioid therapy while other schools of thought look at these issues as relatively rare occurrences. Unfortunately, most of the rhetoric around these topics has occurred with very little in the realm of real world data. To this end, the authors have reviewed the charts of 197 patients treated by a pain specialist for at least 1 year to better illustrate whether notions of tolerance and hyperalgesia are common occurrences and, more importantly, whether they occur within any type of specified timeframe. A total of 197 patient charts were reviewed. The sample had an average age of 49.39 years (range = 19-87 years; standard deviation [SD] = 12.48) and comprised 66 men (33.5 percent) and 131 women (66.5 percent). The patients were seen in the pain practice for an average of 56.52 months (range = 12-155 months; SD = 31.26). On average, the patients maintained an average daily dose of 180 mg morphine equivalents for a period of 35.1 months (range = 3-101 months; SD = 21.3). Looking at the pattern of medication usage change over time, 34.5 percent experienced dose stabilization after the initial titration, 13.2 percent had early dose stabilization within one dose change, and an additional 14.7 percent actually had dose decreases after surgeries or other interventional procedures. Only 6.6 percent of the sample had to be discharged or weaned from controlled substances over time in the clinic. Thus, it appears that tolerance and hyperalgesia are not foregone conclusions when considering placing a patient on long-term opioid therapy.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Analgesics, Opioid / therapeutic use*
  • Chronic Disease
  • Drug Tolerance
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hyperalgesia / drug therapy*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Opioid-Related Disorders / etiology*
  • Outcome Assessment, Health Care
  • Pain / drug therapy*
  • Qualitative Research
  • Treatment Outcome


  • Analgesics, Opioid