Double trouble: opioids and pain among people with substance use disorders

Against the use of opioids for chronic non-cancer pain to people who have active substance use disorders advises the third recommendation in the new opioid therapy guidelines (May 8th, 2017).

However, this “strong” recommendation is based on low quality of evidence from studies that rarely involve people with active substance use disorders (SUD).


Here, we first highlight the main caveats in the research of pain treatment among people with SUDs, why this has been the case and then we offer potential solutions for overcoming the obstacles in clinical research and policy.

Most clinical trials of pain medications exclude people with SUDs. Denying treatment of pain with opioids to people with active SUDs in the absence of evidence, based on a presumed potential for “more” addiction and documented adverse side effects (overdose), is cautious. However, it is also likely influenced by stereotypes and stigma towards people who use drugs and it further discriminates people with SUDs. Instead of stigma, the society should seek better ways of increasing rapid access to evidence-based opioid agonist therapy for prescription opioid use disorders (see Ahamad & Socias, 2016).

Moreover, this approach can lead to unanticipated consequences, such as seeking illicit drugs (see Voon et al, 2015). It is clear that we need more research to better understand pain treatment among people with SUDs and to give better recommendations to clinicians. But what kind of further research? Firstly, we need clinical trials that specifically include people with SUDs, such as people receiving opioid agonist treatment (Ti et al., 2015). If trialists refuse to include people with pain and concurrent SUDs into pain trials, presumably because of their high-risk for more SUDs, this obstacle can be overcome by including a standardized measure of pain, like the VAS, into every pharmacotherapy trial of SUD treatment.

Which pain patient treated with opioids will develop opioid use disorder?

Secondly, we still don’t know which pain patient treated with opioids will develop opioid use disorder (OUD). Despite the typical occurrence of OUDs among approximately 5.5% of the study populations in pain trials, there is no evidence for a reliable predictor of who will develop OUD. We need to find valid risk indicators.

Finally, the current opioid overdose crisis in many countries is primarily driven by not-as-prescribed-use of fentanyl – an anesthetic used to tranquilize elephants. What if people with opioid use disorders self-medicated their pain with fentanyl (see Voon et al., 2015)? What if their pain, both emotional and physical, was as big as elephants and we had nothing for them? What we offer to them is suspicion, exclusion, denial and mistrust. We should offer compassion and fairness.

Cited sources:

  • Busse, J. W., et al. (2017). “Guideline for opioid therapy and chronic noncancer pain.” Canadian Medical Association Journal 189(18): E659-E666.
  • Socias, M. E. and K. Ahamad (2016). “An urgent call to increase access to evidence-based opioid agonist therapy for prescription opioid use disorders.” Canadian Medical Association Journal 188(17/18): 1208.
  • Ti, L., et al. (2015). “Denial of pain medication by health care providers predicts in-hospital illicit drug use among individuals who use illicit drugs.” Pain Research & Management 20(2): 84-88.
  • Voon, P., et al. (2015). “Pain among high-risk patients on methadone maintenance treatment.” The journal of pain 16(9): 887-894.