Harvard Health Letter

New guidelines: Avoid opioids for chronic pain

News Briefs

The CDC wants doctors to stop treating chronic pain by prescribing opioids, such as oxycodone (OxyContin). The CDC published guidelines on opioid prescription March 15, 2016, in The Journal of the American Medical Association. Opioids are powerful painkillers typically used to treat severe pain after surgery or pain with terminal illness, and sometimes used to treat chronic pain. But long-term use of these drugs comes with the risk of dependence, addiction, overdose, and death, as we reported in March.

The CDC is recommending that doctors instead treat chronic pain with non-opioid painkillers, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil); anticonvulsants (gabapentin or pregabalin); tricyclic antidepressants; or serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors. The CDC also suggests treating chronic pain with nondrug therapies, such as physical therapy. If you and your doctor feel the benefits of opioid therapy outweigh the risks, the CDC urges doctors to prescribe the lowest effective dose, and reassess risks and benefits at least every three months. The recommendation is not intended for people taking opioids for terminal illness or palliative care.