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Pain Research and Management
Volume 1, Issue 1, Pages 17-28

Opioid Therapy for Chronic Nonmalignant Pain

Russell K Portenoy1,2

1Pain Service, Department of Neurology, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, USA
2Department of Neurology and Neuroscience, Cornell University Medical College, New York, New York, USA

Received 21 July 1995; Accepted 18 August 1995

Copyright © 1996 Hindawi Publishing Corporation. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.


Long term administration of an opioid drug for chronic nonmalignant pain continues to be controversial, but is no longer uniformly rejected by pain specialists. This is true despite concerns that the regulatory agencies that oversee physician prescribing of opioid drugs continue to stigmatize the practice. The changing clinical perspective has been driven, in part, by widespread acknowledgement of the remarkably favourable outcomes achieved during opioid treatment of cancer pain. These outcomes contrast starkly with popular teaching about chronic opioid therapy and affirm the potential for prolonged efficacy, tolerable side effects, enhanced function associated with improved comfort and minimal risk of aberrant drug-related behaviours consistent with addiction. A large anecdotal experience in populations with nonmalignant pain suggests that these patients are more heterogeneous and that opioid therapy will greatly benefit some and will contribute to negative outcomes for others. The few controlled clinical trials that have been performed support the safety and efficacy of opioid therapy, but have been too limited to ensure generalization to the clinical setting. A critical review of the medical literature pertaining to chronic pain, opioid pharmacology and addiction medicine can clarify misconceptions about opioid therapy and provide a foundation for patient selection and drug administration. The available data support the view that opioids are no panacea for chronic pain, but should be considered in carefully selected patients using clinically derived guidelines that stress a structured approach and ongoing monitoring of efficacy, adverse effects, functional outcomes and the occurrence of aberrant drug-related behaviours.