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UK’s growing opiate crisis: How do GPs find a safer solution for people in pain?

An article in February this year in The Sunday Times highlighted the dramatic increase in the use of opioids, with addiction rates – including overdoses and deaths – surging in line with a huge rise in the number of painkillers being prescribed.

This week, a new report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Addressing Problematic Opioid Use in 35 OECD Countries, suggested urgent action needs to be taken to stem the crisis in major leading economies.

The US has long acknowledged it has a problem when it comes to over-prescribing strong opioids, with more than 91,000 people losing their lives over the last two years to the growing epidemic.

GPs in the UK are continuing to wrangle with how to manage chronic pain in patients, especially when prescription painkillers can often be ineffective after short-term use.

According to The Sunday Times’ analysis of NHS data, opioid use in the UK has risen by 10million in a decade, with doctors prescribing 41.4million strong painkillers in 2017.

An OECD report in May 2019 suggested that there are increasing problems with opioid painkiller addiction and abuse in major leading economies – including the UK

The risks of opiates are already well documented and non-steroidal anti-inflammatories contribute, reported historically, to around 2,000 deaths per year due to gastric bleeding. Even paracetamol, it appears, may not be safe for the treatment of long-term pain.

So is there a place for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) in dealing with pain management?

The College of Medicine’s lead on Complementary and Alternative Medicine, Richard Eaton, mentions in the latest CAM newsletter a US study published in February 2019 entitled: ‘Patient reported outcomes of an integrative pain management programme implemented in a primary care safety net clinic.’ 

How can British GPs better manage chronic pain patients? The College of Medicine urges the NHS to consider investing in better research into CAM for pain management

The report researched, among other things, how the application of acupuncture, massage, mindfulness, exercise and group support brought relief to patients receiving prescription opioids.

The study provided wrote: ‘Practice-based data suggested an increased access to non-pharmacological approaches in primary care safety net settings may be a strategy to improve pain management for vulnerable patients with chronic pain…’ 

Devon GP and College of Medicine chair Dr Michael Dixon urged the NHS to invest more in the research of different approaches to pain management.

He said: “The College of Medicine has long argued for an even-handed approach, when comparing complementary with conventional treatment.

“The College fails to understand why the NHS will not invest in good research to explore the cost effectiveness and safety of complementary approaches to the treatment of pain.”

For all the latest news and developments on CAM, read Richard Eaton’s comprehensive newsletter


Joanna Tweedy and Richard Eaton

Richard Eaton LL.B (Hons) has a professional background as a barrister (now retired), as a lecturer in law and as a business mentor. He has, for many years, supported and campaigned for the freedom of practitioners to practise and for their patients to receive complementary and alternative medicine. He formerly owned and practice-managed, together with his wife Marion Eaton, a Reiki Master Teacher, The Professional Centre for Holistic Health in the Old Town of Hastings, East Sussex, which provided full practising facilities for 16 CAM Practitioners. Richard takes a keen interest in the development of Integrated Healthcare within both the public and the private health sectors.