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Long term use of opioid painkillers may lead to dangerous addiction, warns American Academy of Neurology

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Some individuals rely on opioid painkillers to ease the pain associated with their medical condition. A group of health experts, however, are concerned that the use of opioid analgesics poses dangerous risks and far outweighs the potential benefits it provides.

In a position paper on the use of opioids for treating chronic non-cancer pain, which was published in the journal Neurology on Sept. 30, the American Academy of Neurology (AAN), said that the risks associated with use of narcotic painkillers which include codeine, morphine, oxycodone (Oxycontin), fentanyl, methadone and hydrocodone, far outweigh the benefit of using these drugs to ease non-cancerous conditions such as headaches, fibromyalgia and lower back pain.

The statement, which was written by Gary Franklin, from the Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences in the University of Washington School of Public Health in Seattle, argues that while pain killers have the potential to ease pain, these often still falls short in truly improving the health condition of the patients.

"Opioid therapy should be only part of a multifaceted approach to pain management. The risks for chronic opioid therapy for some chronic conditions such as headache, fibromyalgia, and chronic low back pain likely outweigh the benefits," the statement reads.

Given the implications of using these drugs such as serious side effects, addiction, overdose and death, the AAN said that health service providers should look for other ways to help their patients manage pain. Abuse and misuse of the drug, in particular, has raised a red flag as this could lead to addiction and even death.

"More than 100,000 people have died from prescription opioid use since policies changed in the late 1990s to allow much more liberal long-term use," Franklin said. "There have been more deaths from prescription opioids in the most vulnerable young to middle-aged groups than from firearms and car accidents."

The AAN pointed out several studies that show half of patients who were prescribed with narcotic painkillers for a period of three months continue to take them five years later. Data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also reveal that drug overdose has increased three times in the past two decades and that more than 12 million individuals has claimed using narcotic painkillers without prescription or for non-medical purposes in 2010.

The AAN said that research and data collection of the efficacy and management of opioid use as well as law and policy revisions are necessary to ensure the safety of patients.

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