Intended for healthcare professionals

Clinical Review State of the Art Review

Opioids for low back pain

BMJ 2015; 350 doi: (Published 05 January 2015) Cite this as: BMJ 2015;350:g6380
  1. Richard A Deyo, professor12,
  2. Michael Von Korff, senior investigator 3,
  3. David Duhrkoop, volunteer regional director4
  1. 1Departments of Family Medicine, Internal Medicine, and Public Health and Preventive Medicine and Oregon Institute for Occupational Health Sciences, Oregon Health and Science University, Portland, OR 97239, USA
  2. 2Center for Health Research, Kaiser Permanente Northwest, Portland, OR, USA
  3. 3 Group Health Research Institute, Seattle, WA, USA
  4. 4American Chronic Pain Association, Rocklin, CA, USA
  1. Correspondence to: R A Deyo Department of Family Medicine, Mail Code FM, Oregon Health and Science University, Portland, OR 97239, USA deyor{at}


Back pain affects most adults, causes disability for some, and is a common reason for seeking healthcare. In the United States, opioid prescription for low back pain has increased, and opioids are now the most commonly prescribed drug class. More than half of regular opioid users report back pain. Rates of opioid prescribing in the US and Canada are two to three times higher than in most European countries. The analgesic efficacy of opioids for acute back pain is inferred from evidence in other acute pain conditions. Opioids do not seem to expedite return to work in injured workers or improve functional outcomes of acute back pain in primary care. For chronic back pain, systematic reviews find scant evidence of efficacy. Randomized controlled trials have high dropout rates, brief duration (four months or less), and highly selected patients. Opioids seem to have short term analgesic efficacy for chronic back pain, but benefits for function are less clear. The magnitude of pain relief across chronic non-cancer pain conditions is about 30%. Given the brevity of randomized controlled trials, the long term effectiveness and safety of opioids are unknown. Loss of long term efficacy could result from drug tolerance and emergence of hyperalgesia. Complications of opioid use include addiction and overdose related mortality, which have risen in parallel with prescription rates. Common short term side effects are constipation, nausea, sedation, and increased risk of falls and fractures. Longer term side effects may include depression and sexual dysfunction. Screening for high risk patients, treatment agreements, and urine testing have not reduced overall rates of opioid prescribing, misuse, or overdose. Newer strategies for reducing risks include more selective prescription of opioids and lower doses; use of prescription monitoring programs; avoidance of co-prescription with sedative hypnotics; and reformulations that make drugs more difficult to snort, smoke, or inject.


  • Thanks to Jessica Ridpath for invaluable editorial advice.

  • Contributors: RAD and MVK both conducted the literature searches and summarized the scientific content. DD helped to plan the manuscript, reviewed and approved multiple drafts, and contributed the patient commentary. RAD and MVK are both guarantors.

  • Competing interests: We have read and understood BMJ policy on declaration of interests and declare the following interests: RAD receives honorariums from UpToDate for authoring topics on low back pain. He benefits from an endowment to his university from Kaiser Permanente. He has been a member of the board of directors for the Informed Medical Decisions Foundation, a non-profit organization. MVK has several research grants from Pfizer awarded to the Group Health Research Institute. He is also a co-investigator on Food and Drug Administration mandated post-marketing surveillance studies of opioid safety funded by a consortium of drug companies.

  • Provenance and peer review: Commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

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