Background: Some leading German pain medicine experts postulate that there is a type of chronic non-cancer pain (CNCP) with an opioid requirement. We tested whether opioids are superior to nonopioid analgesics in the management of CNCP in studies of at least 4 week's duration.
Methods: We screened MEDLINE, Scopus and the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL) up until October 2013, as well as the reference sections of original studies and systematic reviews of randomised controlled trials (RCTs) of opioids in CNCP. We included double-blind RTCs comparing opioids to nonopioid analgesics of at least 4 week's duration. Relative risks differences (RD) of categorical data and standardized mean differences (SMD) of continuous variables were calculated using a random effects model.
Results: We included 10 RCTs with 3046 participants. Median study duration was 6 weeks (range 4-12 weeks). Five studies compared tramadol with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) in osteoarthritis pain and one trial compared tramadol to flupirtine in low back pain. Morphine was compared to antidepressants (two studies), an anticonvulsant (one study) and an antiarrhythmic (one study) in different neuropathic pain syndromes. There was no significant difference between opioids and nonopioid analgesics in pain reduction (SMD 0.03 [95 % confidence interval, CI - 0.18, 0.24]; p = 0.76). Nonopioid analgesics were superior to opioids in improving physical function (SMD 0.17 [95 % CI 0.02, 0.32]; p = 0.03). Patients dropped out due to adverse events more frequently with opioids than with nonopioid analgesics (RD 0.09 [95 % CI 0.06, 0.13]; p < 0.0001). There was no significant difference between opioids and nonopioid analgesics in terms of serious adverse events or dropout rates due to lack of efficacy.
Conclusion: Nonopioid analgesics are superior to opioids in terms of improvement of physical function and tolerability in short-term (4-12 weeks) therapy of neuropathic, low back and osteoarthritis pain. Our results do not support the concept of an"opioid-requiring" CNCP. The English full-text version of this article is freely available at SpringerLink (under "Supplemental").