Side effects of opioid drugs when used to treat chronic non-cancer pain in the medium- or long-term

Bottom line

There is good-quality evidence showing that side effects can occur in people with chronic non-cancer pain who use opioid medicines for longer than two weeks.


Opioids are a type of pain medicine related to opium. We conducted an overview of Cochrane Reviews, which are a type of scientific paper, to learn what these papers said about the side effects of opioid drugs. We were interested in the medium- and long-term side effects with this treatment for pain in adults who use opioid medicines who have chronic pain that is not due to cancer. We studied opioid medications compared to pills that do not contain any medicine (placebos) and opioid medications compared to other treatments.

Key results

In March 2017, we found 16 Cochrane Reviews of 14 different opioid medicines, including codeine, morphine, and oxycodone. These papers included 61 studies with more than 18,000 participants. We found that people who take opioids have a higher risk of having any side effect, such as constipation, dizziness, and nausea, as well as having a serious side effect. We did not find any information in the Cochrane Reviews about many of the known and sometimes serious side effects of opioids, such as addiction, depression, and sleep problems.

Quality of the reviews and the evidence

We rated the quality of the included reviews out of 10 points. As all of the reviews scored 9 or 10 out of 10, we are confident that the quality of the included reviews is very good. We also rated the quality of the evidence from studies using four levels: very low, low, moderate, or high; these ratings showed how sure we could be about our results for the side effects of opioids. Very low-quality evidence meant that we are very unsure about the results. High-quality evidence meant that we are very sure of the results. All of our ratings were between very low and moderate.

Authors' conclusions: 

A number of adverse events, including serious adverse events, are associated with the medium- and long-term use of opioids for CNCP. The absolute event rate for any adverse event with opioids in trials using a placebo as comparison was 78%, with an absolute event rate of 7.5% for any serious adverse event. Based on the adverse events identified, clinically relevant benefit would need to be clearly demonstrated before long-term use could be considered in people with CNCP in clinical practice. A number of adverse events that we would have expected to occur with opioid use were not reported in the included Cochrane Reviews. Going forward, we recommend more rigorous identification and reporting of all adverse events in randomised controlled trials and systematic reviews on opioid therapy. The absence of data for many adverse events represents a serious limitation of the evidence on opioids. We also recommend extending study follow-up, as a latency of onset may exist for some adverse events.

Read the full abstract...

Chronic pain is common and can be challenging to manage. Despite increased utilisation of opioids, the safety and efficacy of long-term use of these compounds for chronic non-cancer pain (CNCP) remains controversial. This overview of Cochrane Reviews complements the overview entitled 'High-dose opioids for chronic non-cancer pain: an overview of Cochrane Reviews'.


To provide an overview of the occurrence and nature of adverse events associated with any opioid agent (any dose, frequency, or route of administration) used on a medium- or long-term basis for the treatment of CNCP in adults.


We searched the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (the Cochrane Library) Issue 3, 2017 on 8 March 2017 to identify all Cochrane Reviews of studies of medium- or long-term opioid use (2 weeks or more) for CNCP in adults aged 18 and over. We assessed the quality of the reviews using the AMSTAR criteria (Assessing the Methodological Quality of Systematic Reviews) as adapted for Cochrane Overviews. We assessed the quality of the evidence for the outcomes using the GRADE framework.

Main results: 

We included a total of 16 reviews in our overview, of which 14 presented unique quantitative data. These 14 Cochrane Reviews investigated 14 different opioid agents that were administered for time periods of two weeks or longer. The longest study was 13 months in duration, with most in the 6- to 16-week range. The quality of the included reviews was high using AMSTAR criteria, with 11 reviews meeting all 10 criteria, and 5 of the reviews meeting 9 out of 10, not scoring a point for either duplicate study selection and data extraction, or searching for articles irrespective of language and publication type. The quality of the evidence for the generic adverse event outcomes according to GRADE ranged from very low to moderate, with risk of bias and imprecision being identified for the following generic adverse event outcomes: any adverse event, any serious adverse event, and withdrawals due to adverse events. A GRADE assessment of the quality of the evidence for specific adverse events led to a downgrading to very low- to moderate-quality evidence due to risk of bias, indirectness, and imprecision.

We calculated the equivalent milligrams of morphine per 24 hours for each opioid studied (buprenorphine, codeine, dextropropoxyphene, dihydrocodeine, fentanyl, hydromorphone, levorphanol, methadone, morphine, oxycodone, oxymorphone, tapentadol, tilidine, and tramadol). In the 14 Cochrane Reviews providing unique quantitative data, there were 61 studies with a total of 18,679 randomised participants; 12 of these studies had a cross-over design with two to four arms and a total of 796 participants. Based on the 14 selected Cochrane Reviews, there was a significantly increased risk of experiencing any adverse event with opioids compared to placebo (risk ratio (RR) 1.42, 95% confidence interval (CI) 1.22 to 1.66) as well as with opioids compared to a non-opioid active pharmacological comparator, with a similar risk ratio (RR 1.21, 95% CI 1.10 to 1.33). There was also a significantly increased risk of experiencing a serious adverse event with opioids compared to placebo (RR 2.75, 95% CI 2.06 to 3.67). Furthermore, we found significantly increased risk ratios with opioids compared to placebo for a number of specific adverse events: constipation, dizziness, drowsiness, fatigue, hot flushes, increased sweating, nausea, pruritus, and vomiting.

There was no data on any of the following prespecified adverse events of interest in any of the included reviews in this overview of Cochrane Reviews: addiction, cognitive dysfunction, depressive symptoms or mood disturbances, hypogonadism or other endocrine dysfunction, respiratory depression, sexual dysfunction, and sleep apnoea or sleep-disordered breathing. We found no data for adverse events analysed by sex or ethnicity.