A government adviser has suggested that the term ‘painkiller’ should not be used because it raised unrealistic expectations. Instead, Professor Jamie Coleman said the phrase ‘pain-reliever’ would be a better option.

Research has suggested that just 10% of patents seeking help for long-term pain, benefit from strong painkillers.

Professor Coleman is also in favour of ending the sale of over-the-counter, low-dose codeine drugs in pharmacies as a way to combat prescription drug addiction. Even in low doses, the medication could become addictive, and users risk serious side-effects, such as vomiting and nausea, he said.

Professor Coleman is part of a working group looking at the use of opioid medication for the government in England. Making such drugs prescription-only, alongside a change in culture towards painkillers, is the key to tackling misuse, he says. In the same way that antibiotics are now used less frequently because of the rise of drug-resistant superbugs, the expert in pharmacology at Birmingham University, wants to see a similar change in attitude towards the use of painkillers.

Tackling opioid addiction

Opioids, such as codeine and morphine, are given by doctors to control pain. They are widely used in hospitals for cancer patients, and patients who are dying. However, GPs also prescribe them to their patients who suffer from long-term pain.

A report published last year by Public Health England (PHE) warned that people were getting hooked on prescription drugs, such as opioids, antidepressants and sleeping tablets. The PHE research found that every year more than 5 million people are given them, with 1.2 million on them for at least 12 months.

The ‘painkillers don’t exist’ public awareness scheme is running in Sunderland. Professor Coleman called it an intelligent approach, which could be replicated elsewhere. It stresses that drugs like opioids just mask the symptoms. “We need to educate people. For some, they will have very little impact.”

However, he said he sympathised with GPs who were often under pressure to see patients quickly and did not always have other options to turn to, such as mental health care.

“These can be important factors in tackling long-term pain. We are seeing more support being made available through social prescribing schemes, but there is a definite lack of alternatives for doctors.”

Although prescription rates have risen, the scale of prescription painkiller use in the UK is nowhere near the problems in the USA, where there has been a rise in drug-related deaths. Regulation of prescription drugs in the UK means that their use is much more closely controlled.

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