Using Opium Painkillers to Treat Stomach Pain

Opioid prescriptions for chronic abdominal pain more than doubled

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Many Americans battle chronic abdominal pain, which may be a symptom of serious conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome, colitis, or gallstones. However, experts are worried that doctors are over-prescribing opioid painkillers for the pain, especially if another medication is a better option.

Opioid painkillers are certainly the most popular course of action at present. A new University of North Carolina study shows that opioid prescriptions for chronic abdominal pain more than doubled over an 11-year period. 

"Ask your doctor if there’s another way to treat your stomach problems."

There are two types of painkillers, which are also called “analgesics”: narcotics (opioid analgesics) and non-narcotic analgesics. Opioid painkillers are controversial because they’re powerful painkillers that are highly addictive. Popular brands include OxyContin or Vicodin.

Over the last several years, experts in pain treatment and drug abuse prevention have voiced concern that many Americans use prescription opiate painkillers to get high, rather than to ease severe chronic pain.

This has led to increased rates of overdose deaths. Prescription-drug overdose is the second-leading cause of accidental death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In response to this, Washington State introduced an initiative last year that makes it more difficult for doctors to prescribe higher doses of painkillers, including opioid painkillers. In January, the Food and Drug Administration also took steps to regulate painkillers by limiting the amount of acetaminophen in narcotic painkillers.

Still, doctors say they continue to prescribe opioid painkillers because it’s the only effective way to relieve chronic pain in many people.

In this latest study, researchers were able to track how often opioids were prescribed by looking at records from outpatient clinics between 1997 and 2008. 

The researchers say the frequency of prescription was alarming and may indicate that these drugs are being misused. In a press release, the doctors said that there’s not enough evidence to support opioid therapy as treatment for non-cancer chronic pain. Additionally, the painkiller may actually worsen abdominal pain by causing more gastrointestinal symptoms, such as constipation, nausea and vomiting, said the researchers.

Prescribing pain killers may be the easiest option for doctors, but a more integrated approach to treating chronic illness is a more ideal route, said Dr. Spencer D. Dorn of the University of North Carolina and lead author of the study.

The researchers said that widespread consumer advertising, including magazine ads, may have contributed to the rise in opioid use.

This observational study was published in the December issue of the journal Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
December 1, 2011
Last Updated:
December 7, 2011