For most people, taking an opioid medication for a short while after an accident, surgery, or other trauma is a safe and effective way to relieve major pain. But what if your pain is chronic, which is often the case for people with rheumatoid arthritis (RA)?  

According to a new study, published in the journal Arthritis & Rheumatology, chronic opioid use among people with RA doubled between 2002 and 2015. People with severe pain and those who also took antidepressants were most apt to become long-term users of these drugs, the study found.

This study was an analysis of more than 26,000 RA patients who were part of the Corrona registry who were not taking any opioids when the study began. 

Using opioids for an extended period is controversial, because the longer you use these drugs the more likely you are to become addicted to them and risk an overdose. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) now says that opioids should not be the first-line of treatment for most people with chronic pain, but it’s not clear how many prescribers are following this guidance

Also a problem: Sometimes non-opioid meds and non-pharmacological approaches just aren’t enough for serious, long-lasting pain — though opioids aren’t necessarily the answer. The authors of this new study say that there is “weak evidence that opioids are efficacious for the treatment of pain in RA.” Meanwhile, the study authors caution that RA patients who take opioids may face an increased risk of fractures and serious infections.

As with other long-term users of opioids, people with RA should take precautions to avoid abusing their medication. These drugs should be taken exactly as prescribed, and you should tell your doctor right away if you notice any side effects. Most experts recommend using the lowest possible dose required to get relief; if you feel the urge to take extra pills be sure to talk to your doctor. 

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