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Efficacy of Opioids for Chronic Pain: A Review of the Evidence

Ballantyne, Jane C. MD, FRCA; Shin, Naomi S. BA

doi: 10.1097/AJP.0b013e31816b2f26
Special Topic Series

Opioid therapy for chronic pain has been popularized over the past few decades, and a concern has arisen that the analgesic efficacy of opioids is not always maintained over prolonged courses of treatment despite dose escalation and stable pain. Considering the potentially serious adverse effects of opioids, the idea that pain relief could diminish over time may have a significant impact on the decision to embark on this therapy, especially in vulnerable individuals. Possible loss of analgesic efficacy is especially concerning, considering that dependence may make it hard to withdraw opioid therapy even in the face of poor analgesia. This article first reviews the evidence on opioid efficacy when used for the treatment of chronic pain, and concludes that existing evidence suggests that analgesic efficacy, although initially good, is not always sustained during continuous and long-term opioid therapy (months to years). The theoretical basis for loss of analgesic efficacy over time is then examined. Mechanisms for loss of analgesic efficacy proposed are pharmacologic tolerance, opioid-induced hyperalgesia, subtle and intermittent withdrawal, and a number of psychologic factors including loss of the placebo component.

Division of Pain Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, MA

Reprints: Jane C. Ballantyne, MD, FRCA, Division of Pain Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital, 15 Parkman Street, WACC 333, Boston, MA 02114 (e-mail:

Received for publication January 27, 2008; accepted January 28, 2008

© 2008 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.