When it comes to dealing with severe or chronic pain, many GPs prescribe strong painkillers such as morphine, tramadol, and oxycodone for their patients. While safe to take temporarily and as advised by a doctor, these drugs can be dangerous if misused. They can be highly addictive and have resulted in countless individuals across the UK developing a drug dependency.

The case of prescription drug addiction was highlighted recently with the death of pop legend Prince, who it was revealed had struggled with a twenty-five-year addiction to opioid medication.

Now experts are warning that strong painkillers are ineffective in the treatment of back pain, despite the fact that they are prescribed in their millions every single year for this exact condition.

Dangerous and Addictive

A major review of clinical evidence has found that opioid medication provides only minimal benefit for the treatment of lower back pain. However, when taken over a long time, these drugs are highly addictive and can be dangerous. Researchers have found that in almost forty per cent of lower back pain cases, opioid painkillers are prescribed.

The study was carried out by researchers at Sydney’s George Institute for Global Health and revealed that around half of patients who were prescribed opioid medication stopped taking them because they were ineffective or because they resulted in unpleasant side effects. Even at high doses, these drugs provided little benefit to patients.

Minimal Effect

According to lead author Professor Chris Maher, “Taking an opioid analgesic such as oxycodone will reduce pain, but the effect is likely to be small. People have the mistaken belief that opioids are strong painkillers. When you look closely at the evidence from the low back pain trials, an entirely different picture emerges.”

The team examined clinical data from twenty different trials involving almost 7,300 patients. They found that although the medication did provide some relief, the side effects definitely outweighed the benefits; some of these side effects included dizziness, falls, addiction, and even death from overdose.


Experts believe that if opioid medication is not providing the pain relief expected by patients, they may be tempted to take more of it, which can result in addiction or overdose. Studies have found that around fifty per cent of patients in the US who were prescribed opioid medication for a period of three months were still taking the same medication five years later. The problem appears to be similar here in the UK.

In 2005, there were 10.7 million opioid medication prescriptions in England, but by 2015, that figure had more than doubled to 23.3 million. According to a number of charity organisations, there are around 32,000 people in the UK with a painkiller addiction, and the majority of those became addicted after being prescribed this medication for a minor ailment.

Statistics in the US reveal that one out of every 550 patients who have been prescribed opioid medication will overdose on their pills and die within three years. Professor Maher commented on this statistic, saying “We know of no other medication routinely used for a non-fatal condition that kills patients so frequently.”


A number of British doctors have voiced their concerns about the way that opioid medication is prescribed in the UK. Dr Martin Johnson, who is a chronic pain expert, said, “Painkillers are appropriate for short-term, intermittent use. They are good tool for you to reduce your pain enough to exercise – that is the best way to use them.”

He believes that exercising and stretching are much better options for the treatment of lower back pain. According to Dr Johnson, opioid medication should only ever be prescribed for short-term use.


  1. Powerful painkillers for back pain like morphine and tramadol are ‘NOT effective and can be dangerous’ (Daily Mail)