Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic auto-immune disease, which causes inflammation of the joints that eventually leads to progressive joint destruction and deformity. Patients have swollen, stiff and painful joints. The main aim of treatment is to reduce swelling and inflammation, to alleviate pain and stiffness and to maintain normal joint function. While there is no cure, it is important to properly manage pain.
The mainstays of therapy in RA are disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs) and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). These drugs primarily target inflammation. However, since inflammation is not the only factor that causes pain in RA, patients may not be (fully) responsive to treatment with these medications.
Opioids are another class of pain-relieving substance (analgesics). They are frequently used in RA, but their role in chronic cancer pain, including RA, is not firmly established.
A recent Cochrane Systematic Review  assessed the beneficial and harmful effects of opioids in RA.
Eleven studies (672 participants) were included in the review.
Four studies only assessed the efficacy of single doses of different analgesics, often given on consecutive days. In each study opioids reduced pain (a bit) more than placebo. There were no differences in effectiveness between the opioids.
Seven studies between 1-6 weeks in duration assessed 6 different oral opioids either alone or combined with non-opioid analgesics.
The only strong opioid investigated was controlled-release morphine sulphate, in a single study with 20 participants.
Six studies compared an opioid (often combined with an non-opioid analgesic) to placebo. Opioids were slightly better than placebo in improving patient reported global impression of clinical change (PGIC) (3 studies, 324 participants: relative risk (RR) 1.44, 95% CI 1.03 to 2.03), but did not lower the number of withdrawals due to inadequate analgesia in 4 studies.
Notably none of the 11 studies reported the primary and probably more clinical relevant outcome “proportion of participants reporting ≥ 30% pain relief”.
On the other hand adverse events (most commonly nausea, vomiting, dizziness and constipation) were more frequent in patients receiving opioids compared to placebo (4 studies, 371 participants: odds ratio 3.90, 95% CI 2.31 to 6.56). Withdrawal due to adverse events was non-significantly higher in the opioid-treated group.
Comparing opioids to other analgesics instead of placebos seems more relevant. Among the 11 studies, only 1 study compared an opioid (codeine with paracetamol) to an NSAID (diclofenac). This study found no difference in efficacy or safety between the two treatments.
The 11 included studies were very heterogeneous (i.e. different opioid studied, with or without concurrent use of non-opioid analgesics, different outcomes measured) and the risk of bias was generally high. Furthermore, most studies were published before 2000 (less optimal treatment of RA).
The authors therefore conclude:
In light of this, the quantitative findings of this review must be interpreted with great caution. At best, there is weak evidence in favour of the efficacy of opioids for the treatment of pain in patients with RA but, as no study was longer than six weeks in duration, no reliable conclusions can be drawn regarding the efficacy or safety of opioids in the longer term.
This was the evidence, now the opinion.
I found this Cochrane Review via an EvidenceUpdates email alert from the BMJ Group and McMaster PLUS.
EvidenceUpdate alerts are meant to “provide you with access to current best evidence from research, tailored to your own health care interests, to support evidence-based clinical decisions. (…) All citations are pre-rated for quality by research staff, then rated for clinical relevance and interest by at least 3 members of a worldwide panel of practicing physicians”
I usually don’t care about the rating, because it is mostly 5-6 on a scale of 7. This was also true for the current SR.
There is a more detailed rating available (when clicking the link, free registration required). Usually, the newsworthiness of SR’s scores relatively low. (because it summarizes ‘old’ studies?). Personally I would think that the relevance and newsworthiness would be higher for the special interest group, pain.
But the comment of the first of the 3 clinical raters was most revealing:
As a Palliative care physician and general internist, I have had excellent results using low potency opiates for RA and OA pain. The palliative care literature is significantly more supportive of this approach vs. the Cochrane review.
Thus personal experience wins from evidence?* How did this palliative care physician assess effectiveness? Just give a single dose of an opiate? How did he rate the effectiveness of the opioids? Did he/she compare it to placebo or NSAID (did he compare it at all?), did he/she measure adverse effects?
And what is “The palliative care literature” the commenter is referring to? Apparently not this Cochrane Review. Apparently not the 11 controlled trials included in the Cochrane review. Apparently not the several other Cochrane reviews on use of opioids for non-chronic cancer pain, and not the guidelines, syntheses and synopsis I found via the TRIP-database. All conclude that using opioids to treat non-cancer chronic pain is supported by very limited evidence, that adverse effects are common and that long-term use may lead to opioid addiction.
I’m sorry to note that although the alerting service is great as an alert, such personal ratings are not very helpful for interpreting and *true* rating of the evidence.
I would rather prefer a truly objective, structured critical appraisal like this one on a similar topic by DARE (“Opioids for chronic noncancer pain: a meta-analysis of effectiveness and side effects”) and/or an objective piece that puts the new data into clinical perspective.
*Just to be clear, the own expertise and opinions of experts are also important in decision making. Rightly, Sackett  emphasized that good doctors use both individual clinical expertise and the best available external evidence. However, that doesn’t mean that one personal opinion and/or preference replaces all the existing evidence.
- Whittle SL, Richards BL, Husni E, & Buchbinder R (2011). Opioid therapy for treating rheumatoid arthritis pain. Cochrane database of systematic reviews (Online), 11 PMID: 22071805
- Sackett DL, Rosenberg WM, Gray JA, Haynes RB, & Richardson WS (1996). Evidence based medicine: what it is and what it isn’t. BMJ (Clinical research ed.), 312 (7023), 71-2 PMID: 8555924