Opioids are often prescribed to treat chronic pain, so it makes sense that if someone were to stop taking them, their pain would get worse. But according to a new study, it turns out that the opposite might actually be the case.

Washington State University researchers found that when patients who were using opioids for longterm, non-cancer related pain stopped their opioid treatment, their pain didn’t actually increase. In fact, in some cases, it got better.

The study looked at survey responses from 551 Veterans Affairs pain patients who had been on opioid therapy for at least a year. Most had musculoskeletal pain, but some suffered from neuropathic pain or headaches, including migraines. The patients rated their pain on a scale from 0 to 10 over the course of two years. Afterward, researchers looked at their pain in the year before and the year after stopping their opioid treatment.

"On average, pain did not become worse among patients in our study a year after discontinuing long-term opioid therapy," said Sterling McPherson - the biostatistics professor who led the study. "If anything, their pain improved slightly, particularly among patients with mild to moderate pain just after discontinuation. Clinicians might consider these findings when discussing the risks and benefits of long-term opioid therapy as compared to other, non-opioid treatments for chronic pain."

Those findings suggest that opioids might not be as effective as previously thought for longterm pain.

And considering the harm that opioids can cause and the well-documented potential for addiction, researchers are suggesting patients look into other long-term pain management techniques. 

"Our results indicate that long term opioid therapy does not effectively manage patient pain intensity any more effectively than not receiving long-term opioid therapy," McPherson said. "There are a variety of treatments available for the management of chronic pain other than opioids and our hope is that this research will help promote conversations about these alternatives between doctors and their patients."

So maybe their next study should examine the effectiveness of CBD as a long-term pain management strategy instead?