The term “painkiller” should be ditched to reframe the nation’s attitudes towards the drugs, a government adviser has suggested – but would it really make a difference?
Professor Jamie Coleman suggested “pain-reliever” would be a better option, reflecting the fact that strong painkillers, including opioids, are not always effective at treating chronic pain.
The professor, who’s part of a working group reviewing opioid use for the government, called for greater awareness of the risks of addiction associated with these drugs.
“We need to educate people. For some, they [painkillers] will have very little impact [on pain],” he said, according to the BBC.
Opioid painkillers, which come from the same family as heroin, are prescribed for a variety of reasons, from pain relief after an operation to the management of severe period pain. Common opioid painkillers include codeine and tramadol.
While more potent opioids such as morphine and strong codeine are only available on prescription, lower strength opioids are available from pharmacies over-the-counter (for example, co-codamol, which contains lower strength codeine alongside paracetamol).
But all opioid-based drugs can be addictive. Tolerance to the drugs can build up, meaning patients or recreational users may take higher doses to get the same effects or to avoid withdrawal symptoms, which can include nervous tremors, anxiety, sleep disorders, vomiting and diarrhoea.
The general rule of thumb from the Royal College of GPs is that opioid painkillers should be used in “the lowest possible dose to obtain pain relief and then for the shortest possible time”. However, more than half a million people in the UK have been taking prescribed opioid painkillers for three years or more, according to data released last year by Public Health England. Prescription rates were found to be higher in economically deprived areas of England.
Considering the complexity of the issue, Nuno Albuquerque, group treatment lead at addiction treatment provider UKAT, doesn’t believe a name change is the answer.
“Whilst it is encouraging that attention is being directed towards tackling this country’s dependency on prescribed medication, it feels like a ‘rebrand’ of the term painkiller to pain reliever is more a style over substance approach,” he told HuffPost UK.
Albuquerque said the scale of the problem is “too great” for this approach to be immediately helpful. “The focus should be on supporting GPs with better IT systems, resources and time allowed with each patient so they can educate them, whilst formulating tailored pain management programmes and therapies for those who have simply been on repeat prescriptions for years,” he said.
People who regularly take opioid painkillers have also previously told HuffPost UK they’re aware of the risks and flaws of the drugs, but haven’t been able to find alternatives.
Dawn McGuigan, 37, from Houghton-le-Spring near Sunderland, relies on codeine to deal with the pain she suffers as a result of endometriosis.
“Some days my back pain is so bad during ovulation that I can’t stand or get off the sofa, so taking it helps me get to work,” she said. “It also helps me sleep as the dull aching pain usually keeps me awake into the early hours.”
Dee Montague, 36, from Newport, Wales, also takes the painkillers for endometriosis. She previously developed addiction to prescribed codeine. Despite getting help to wean herself off, she’s now cautiously taking co-codamol again because she can’t find another option.
“I try not to take it for more than three days or at the recommended dosage, but when my pain is very bad sometimes I’m left with little choice,” she said. “I wish there were better alternatives and that women were more listened to and helped when it comes to chronic pain.”
Even Professor Coleman, who suggested the rebranding, acknowledged a “definite lack of alternatives for doctors”.
This is, perhaps, the crux of the problem. Until there’s more funding and research into chronic pain, as well as more treatment options, patients may continue to take the only options presented to them – whatever they’re called.