New treatment helps people stop addictive opioid painkillers used for chronic pain

Written by | 26 May 2023 | Medicines and Therapeutics

Researchers at the University of Warwick and The James Cook University Hospital, Middlesbrough have led a clinical trial, funded by the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR), on a new treatment which can help people stop needing to use opioid painkillers to manage chronic pain.

There are over 1 million people in the UK on prescription opioids*, over 50,000 of whom have been taking these for 6 months or more*, at an estimated cost of £500 million to the NHS annually.

Recent NHS initiatives have managed to reduce opioid prescribing by eight per cent, saving an estimated 350 lives.

New research has found evidence that could help many more people stop their opioid painkiller use.

Despite the evidence that taking opioids long term is harmful there are currently no alternative treatments available to safely help people who are coming off opioids and still dealing with chronic, non-cancer pain.

A team of researchers and clinicians have developed and successfully trialled an intervention programme designed to guide people in coming off prescription painkillers, taper their opioid intake and learn how to manage their pain using alternative techniques with a course which combines one-to-one and group support.

1 in 5 people came off opioids within one year

The study, titled I-WOTCH (Improving the Wellbeing of people with Opioid Treated Chronic Pain), found that the intervention programme helped 1 in 5 people come off their opioids within one year, without substituting medication and without making their pain worse.

Over 600 people took part in the randomised controlled study between 2017 and 2020 who at the beginning of the trial had been regularly taking strong opioids for at least three months. The participants were recruited from GP practices from the North East of England and the Midlands.

The study compared two treatments, dividing participants randomly into two groups.  One group had access to their existing GP care, plus a self-help booklet and relaxation CD; the second group had the same and also took part in an intervention programme specially developed by the study team.

The intervention programme included sessions on coping techniques, stress management, goal setting, mindfulness, posture and movement advice, how to manage any withdrawal symptoms and pain control after opioids.

Participants completed questionnaires about their everyday functioning and painkiller intake at intervals throughout the trial.

After one year, 29 per cent of people who took part in the intervention programme, were able to fully come off their opioids completely, compared to just 7 per cent who were treated with existing GP care, the self-help booklet and CD.

There was no difference between the two groups in terms of their pain, or how pain interfered with their lives.

Combined group and one-to-one support key to reduce opioid need

Harbinder Kaur Sandhu, Professor of Health Psychology at the University of Warwick, who led the clinical trial said: “Structured, group-based, psycho-educational self-management interventions help people to better manage their daily lives with a long-term condition, including persistent pain, but few of these have specifically targeted patients considering opioid withdrawal.

“The findings from the trial are extremely promising. Many people who have been taking prescription painkillers over a long period time suffer with harmful side effects but can feel reluctant to come off them because they think it could make their pain worse, or they do not know how to approach this with their clinician.

“Our trial has found a treatment that could help people to come off opioids, in a way that is safe, supportive and gradual. It’s a supported decision between the patient and the clinician, and not forced tapering. The programme helps people to learn alternative ways to manage their pain and help overcome challenges of withdrawal and has the potential to give people an overall better quality of life.”

Opioids have little long-term impact on chronic pain

Professor Sam Eldabe, clinical trial co-lead and consultant in pain medicine at The James Cook University Hospital, said: “Our trial is the culmination of six years of work during which we learned that the harms from long term opioids extend beyond the individual into their social circle. Patients taking opioids lose interest in social interaction with family and friends and gradually withdraw from society into an opioid-induced mental fog.

“Despite appreciating the social impact of the drugs, most patients utterly dread a worsening of their pain should they attempt to reduce their opioids.

“Our study shows clearly that opioids can be gradually reduced and stopped within no actual worsening of the pain. This confirms our suspicions that opioids have very little long-term impact on persistent pain.”

Colin’s story

Colin Tysall, 81 from Coventry, was prescribed painkillers, including opioids to treat chronic back pain, as a result of working as an aircraft radiologist for 30 years.

“I was an industrial radiologist and wore my back out x-raying aircraft parts and handling heavy castings for jet engines. The castings could weigh up to 200lbs and even though we would move some of the castings around in stillages, it was still a strain. We were having to move these castings around very carefully, with no lifting equipment.”

Colin started experiencing sciatic pain down both of his legs and found that he had three slipped discs in his back. He describes the devastating impact of painkiller dependency:

“The treatment at the time was bedrest and painkillers. The tablets got stronger and stronger until eventually I was prescribed opioids,” said Colin.

“I spent so much time in bed that I lost the use of my legs and fell into a deep depression, so I was prescribed antidepressants too. I couldn’t look after my family, and at one point I tried to take my own life.

“I didn’t like being on tablets. They addled my brain, they made it difficult to think straight, my brain wasn’t functioning as it should. I would have nightmares a lot. As soon as I could come off them, I did.”

After spending 10 years visiting hospital to treat his back and mental health, Colin turned to alternative treatments to treat his pain.

“I found that the best treatment for me was exercise. I got involved with mental health self-health groups, and I became friends with people experiencing similar problems. We would walk and talk together, which was the opposite of the guidelines at the time, but I found it helped keep my mind off the pain, and it made it easier to cope.”

After spending a couple of years tapering his medication to a lower level, Colin was eventually able to come off the tablets altogether. Recently he has found that he is no longer suffering with the pain.

Colin retrained as an associate mental health manager, and he continues to work at Coventry and Warwick universities helping to train psychiatric and nursing students.

Most recently, Colin got involved with the University of Warwick’s Clinical Trials Unit and has been helping support patients in the I-WOTCH clinical trial group support sessions as a trained I-WOTCH lay person.

The full intervention programme consisted of an 8-to-10-week course and included:

  • Group support sessions

The group sessions consisted of three full day sessions per week. The group sessions included education about opioids and pain, case studies of people who have successfully tapered, learning self-management skills for pain and challenging

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