Describing medication to relieve pain as ‘painkillers’ is unhelpful, and may cause ‘unrealistic expectations’, according to a government advisor.
Jamie Coleman, Professor in Clinical Pharmacology at University of Birmingham, said there needed to be a ‘culture approach and attitude around the use of painkillers, much as there has been with antibiotics because of the rise of drug-resistant superbugs.’He highlighted research that found just one in ten patients benefit from strong pain control drugs saying ‘We need to educate people. For some, they will have very little impact.’
Professor Coleman, who is part of a working group looking at opioid prescriptions, also stated that 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 and support schemes to address loneliness.
‘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.’
A report published last year by Public Health England warned that people were getting hooked on prescription drugs, such as opioids, anti-depressants and sleeping tablets. 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. The report found that every year more than 5 million people are prescribed opioids – with 1.2 million on them for at least 12 months.
‘We probably do over-prescribe. GPs don’t have enough time to get to the bottom of what is wrong with patients,’ said Dr Cathy Stannard, Consultant in pain medicine at NHS Gloucestershire. ‘For some a painkiller will be life-changing, but for many it won’t work. Pain can be related to grief, social isolation or mobility issues for example. Address those and you can make a difference.’