The prevalence, efficacy, and risk for addiction for persons receiving opioids for chronic back pain are unclear.

To determine the prevalence of opioid treatment, whether opioid medications are effective, and the prevalence of substance use disorders among patients receiving opioid medications for chronic back pain.

English-language studies from MEDLINE (1966-March 2005), EMBASE (1966-March 2005), Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Clinical Trials (to 4th quarter 2004), PsychInfo (1966-March 2005), and retrieved references.

Articles that studied an adult, nonobstetric sample; used oral, topical, or transdermal opioids; and focused on treatment for chronic back pain.

Two investigators independently extracted data and determined study quality.

Opioid prescribing varied by treatment setting (range, 3% to 66%). Meta-analysis of the 4 studies assessing the efficacy of opioids compared with placebo or a nonopioid control did not show reduced pain with opioids (g, -0.199 composite standardized mean difference [95% CI, -0.49 to 0.11]; P = 0.136). Meta-analysis of the 5 studies directly comparing the efficacy of different opioids demonstrated a nonsignificant reduction in pain from baseline (g, -0.93 composite standardized mean difference [CI, -1.89 to -0.03]; P = 0.055). The prevalence of lifetime substance use disorders ranged from 36% to 56%, and the estimates of the prevalence of current substance use disorders were as high as 43%. Aberrant medication-taking behaviors ranged from 5% to 24%.

Retrieval and publication biases and poor study quality. No trial evaluating the efficacy of opioids was longer than 16 weeks.

Opioids are commonly prescribed for chronic back pain and may be efficacious for short-term pain relief. Long-term efficacy (> or =16 weeks) is unclear. Substance use disorders are common in patients taking opioids for back pain, and aberrant medication-taking behaviors occur in up to 24% of cases.

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