How are opioids used to treat osteoarthritis?

Opioids are among several classes of medicines used to treat osteoarthritis. Since there is nothing that will actually 'cure' this type of arthritis, any medicine normally used to treat pain could be used for this purpose. Opioids are a last resort treatment as they are addictive and tend not to work well after a while.

Donna Hill Howes, RN
Family Practitioner

Opioids are narcotic pain medications related to opium. Opioids used to treat osteoarthritis pain include codeine, tramadol (ConZip, Ultram), morphine (Avinza, Kadian, MS Contin), oxycodone (Oxaydo, OxyContin, Roxicodone), oxymorphone (Opana), hydromorphone (Dilaudid, Exalgo), and fentanyl patches (Duragesic). These drugs can relieve pain, but they do not improve joint damage.

Because of the dangers of opioids, treatment guidelines recommend them only when joint replacement surgery is not an option, and when safer treatments, such as exercise, weight loss, joint splints or braces, and acetaminophen or NSAIDs, do not control pain. Experts stress that the risks of these drugs outweigh the benefits, which are small, for most people. Up to 50% of people cannot tolerate the side effects when they take the dosage needed to relieve pain.

Opioids carry a very high risk of abuse, addiction, and fatal overdose. This risk is higher in people with a history of substance or alcohol abuse and in people with psychiatric problems, such as depression. The risk of overdose is also higher for people who take extended-release or long-acting forms of the drugs. Opioids also carry a high risk of life-threatening breathing problems (respiratory depression), even when taken at recommended doses.

This answer was adapted from Sharecare's award-winning AskMD app. Start a consultation now to find out what's causing your symptoms, learn how to manage a condition, or find a doctor.

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