I’ve got a box in my closet with hundreds of pills prescribed by doctors for back pain – everything from opiates like Hydrocodone and Oxycontin to muscle relaxants like Flexoril and anti-inflammatories like Celebrex. While I do use them very infrequently to help me sleep or get on a plane when my back is in spasm, I can honestly say none of them work long-term.
In fact, I’ve come to the conclusion that prolonged use of drugs for back pain actually makes me feel worse, mostly because it robs me of the energy to walk and stretch and lift weights and just move around – all of the things that are critical to fighting pain. And while I imagine there are people worse off than me who need meds to just get through the day, I suspect many treated for simple, regional back pain end up spiraling into chronic illness because taking the drugs doesn’t do anything to fix the underlying problem.
So I was unsurprised to see a recent study focused on the use of opiate pain medication for non-cancer related pain (mostly back pain) in patients over 60 years old. The study, which included 2,300 people prescribed opiates for non-cancer pain for at least 90 days, found that the annual fracture rate – basically breaking bones by falling – more than doubled to 10 percent (from 4 percent) for those taking a dose of at least 50 milligrams of opiates per day, which the authors described as a “moderate” dose.
Not only did these patients fall and break a bone, the study reports that one-quarter of them ended up in a nursing home within a month of their fall.
For anyone who’s ever taken these powerful drugs, it’s pretty clear why people fall more when they’re drugged up: they make you dizzy – they totally sedate people to the point where they aren’t paying attention to what they’re doing. And taking them over a period of two months regularly, as those in the study did, basically rules out much exercise for all but the extremely motivated – that can’t be good for your balance either.