In 2016, over 64,000 people in the United States died from opioid overdoses — either from painkillers, heroin, or fentanyl (a synthetic opioid). To put that number in perspective, that’s more Americans killed by opioids in 365 days than were killed during the entirety of the Vietnam War. Opioids in America are more than a crisis — they’re a national emergency.
While doctors may have helped fuel this epidemic through the over-prescription of opioids, the underlying issue that they were often trying to treat, chronic pain, remains an enormous issue. Americans, pain pills or not, are hurting. In a recent National Institutes of Health study, 25.3 million adults reported experiencing chronic pain every single day in the three months prior to the study, a number that makes up 11.2 percent of the population. An even larger number, 126 million people, reported experiencing pain of some sort in the three months prior.
Doctors have long voiced concerns that prescription opioid painkillers — on top of a high potential for addiction — aren’t actually solving the problem of chronic pain. This week, science confirmed it.
A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association compared opioids (Vicodin, oxycodone, and fentanyl) to non-opioids (Tylenol, ibuprofen, and nerve blockers) to see if they were better at treating chronic back, hip, or knee pain. The answer was clear: They were not. “Treatment with opioids was not superior to treatment with non-opioids for improving pain-related function over 12 months,” the study reads. “Results do not support initiation of opioid therapy for moderate to severe chronic back pain or hip or knee osteoarthritis pain.”
The news is a major blow for pharmaceutical companies like Purdue Pharma, who have made billions through prescription painkillers, but it’s even worse news for those suffering the effects of chronic pain. The question it leaves behind: If opioids aren’t the answer to chronic pain, what is?
For a growing number of doctors, the answer comes in the form of another less dangerous drug: cannabis. This past November, three doctors in Illinois started a campaign called Physicians Against Injurious Narcotics, or PAIN, which aims to expand the state’s medical marijuana program to allow anyone that qualifies for opioids to also qualify for marijuana.