Food and Drug Administration (FDA) chief Scott Gottlieb M.D., wants to know whether opioids already on the market to treat chronic pain actually work.
Opioids are a class of painkillers that also give users a feeling of euphoria, and oftentimes as the drug is continued, greater doses are needed to quell the pain, leading to dependence and addiction. Prescription opioids have opened the door to abuses of heroin and synthetic opioids like fentanyl, and created an opioid epidemic that in 2017 alone took the lives of 46,000 Americans.
Studies have suggested that opioids may not be as effective for some types of pain, causing the patient more harm than good. This has led to much controversy over whether the medications are needed beyond the first few weeks after an injury. Or even if they are needed at all.
For example, in 2018, a researcher at the Minneapolis VA Health Care System conducted a study on patients with serious and chronic back, hip and knee pain. One group was treated with various non-opioid painkillers under close and careful medical supervision. The other group was prescribed opioids. Those who were treated with opioid alternatives reported less severe pain and fewer side effects.
More rigorous studies like these are needed to better determine the effectiveness of opioids, Dr. Gottlieb said.
Dr. Gottlieb told the Washington Post that the FDA will require drug companies to conduct studies on their opioids already on the market to determine if they even work for chronic pain, and if they can paradoxically make patients more sensitive to pain.
The research on the effectiveness of opioids as a treatment for chronic pain could lead to label updates and changes in prescribing rules and ultimately reduce the impact of the opioid epidemic.