Background: For the past 30 years, opioids have been used to treat chronic nonmalignant pain. This study tests the following hypotheses: (1) there is no strong evidence-based foundation for the conclusion that long-term opioid treatment of chronic nonmalignant pain is effective; and (2) the main problem associated with the safety of such treatment - assessment of the risk of addiction - has been neglected.
Methods: Scientometric analysis of the articles representing clinical research in this area was performed to assess (1) the quality of presented evidence (type of study); and (2) the duration of the treatment phase. The sufficiency of representation of addiction was assessed by counting the number of articles that represent (1) editorials; (2) articles in the top specialty journals; and (3) articles with titles clearly indicating that the addiction-related safety is involved (topic-in-title articles).
Results: Not a single randomized controlled trial with opioid treatment lasting >3 months was found. All studies with a duration of opioid treatment ≥6 months (n = 16) were conducted without a proper control group. Such studies cannot provide the consistent good-quality evidence necessary for a strong clinical recommendation. There were profound differences in the number of addiction articles related specifically to chronic nonmalignant pain patients and to opioid addiction in general. An inadequate number of chronic pain-related publications were observed with all three types of counted articles: editorials, articles in the top specialty journals, and topic-in-title articles.
Conclusion: There is no strong evidence-based foundation for the conclusion that long-term opioid treatment of chronic nonmalignant pain is effective. The above identified signs indicating neglect of addiction associated with the opioid treatment of chronic nonmalignant pain were present.
Keywords: addiction; chronic pain; neuropathic pain; opioids; overdose death; quality of evidence; treatment efficacy.