Prescription Painkillers Most Common Treatment for Patients Seeking Care for Back Pain

Prescription Painkillers Most Common Treatment for Patients Seeking Care for Back Pain

By Staff.

More than half of Americans suffer from back pain, and doctors are turning to prescription painkillers frequently.

According to a poll by Truven Health Analytics and NPR, 40% of people who sought out medical treatment for their back pain were prescribed painkillers.

Truven Health Analytics, which is part of the IBM Watson Health business, and NPR conducted a nationwide poll of 3,002 Americans about treatment for back pain that was experienced within the last 12 months.

Some of the key findings from the poll are highlighted below, while the entire results can be found by clicking on this link:

  • Back Pain Plagues Americans: Fifty one percent of Americans said they have suffered from back pain in the last 12 months, and 46 percent of those who experienced pain said they are still in discomfort. More than half (58 percent) of back pain sufferers sought care, with 70 percent visiting a medical doctor and 14 percent visiting a chiropractor.
  • Prescription Pain Killers are the Most Common Treatment: Of the 70 percent of back pain sufferers who sought care from a medical doctor, 40 percent were prescribed prescription pain killers, a rate that tended to decrease with increasing age of the patient. Other treatments prescribed were exercise/physical therapy (31 percent), injections (20 percent), massage (17 percent), steroids (17 percent), over-the-counter painkillers (13 percent), surgery (12 percent), or some other form of treatment (37 percent).
  • Nearly a Third Remain in Pain, Even with Treatment: Among all respondents, 25 percent said their back pain stayed the same and five percent said their pain got worse. Forty-five percent said their pain improved, and 25 percent said it went away completely.

“Experiencing back pain is very common among Americans, and there are a number of factors that can contribute to it, some of which are treatable without prescription pain killers,” said Anil Jain, MD, Vice-President and Chief Health Informatics Officer, Value-Based Care, IBM Watson Health.

“These data show that when the patients do seek care, they are often prescribed pain-killers. Compounding this challenge, back pain sufferers who are prescribed opioids for pain may be particularly at risk for dependency and addiction. Curbing inappropriate opioid prescriptions for chronic pain is a focus of efforts by providers to combat the current opioid epidemic,” Dr. Jain added.

The results depicted from the 2017 survey represent responses from 3,002 survey participants interviewed from March 1 – 16, 2017. The margin of error is +/- 1.8 percentage points.

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Authored by: Staff

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Misti. No ! Cuts that affect addicts receiving treatments, will make it far more difficult on chronic pain patients than it is now. Cuts to health care will also make it harder on chronic pain patients because many won’t be able to afford to see a doctor. You have to look at the whole puzzle and not just a piece of it.

HAZZY, any doctor can prescribe pain meds for chronic pain. There are no Federal or State Laws saying they cannot. Unfortunately, a lot of doctors lie to their patients and say they can’t prescribe these meds because of new laws. They do this because patients argue less with doctors when they think they have no control over it.

Pain management doctors are specially educated and trained in pain. Other doctors are not.

I believe this could be good for chronic pain patients Trump cutting funding to the government offices that are waging war on chronic pain patients

Stephen M

Does anyone else remember the people who died from epidural steroid injections a few years back? Why can we still get those, but not opioids that actually work?




To all, excellent comments! I relate to every word written. I’m so proud of our CP community!



Jean Price

I see all of these good comments this morning…the many good points brought up about back pain and medication, and pain in general…and I have to say there’s more GOOD and PERTINENT information in them then there is in this “statistic waving” article that is misleading, (in my opinion)! I’m left wondering WHY…why can’t NPR come up with a more informational take on things like this?! One that’s unbiased and explores all the sides of the issues! Sadly, I see this happening with many of the “studies/polls/surveys” reported here!! I realize there’s not much PERTINENT research being done ON PAIN and REAL life issues of people with chronic pain…as Maureen pointed out so well! Yet surely there are better ways to write up some of the findings of what IS being looked at, (as unhelpful and science-poor as that research may be!). Or better yet, just not run them at all! I leave this site feeling worse so many times that I’m ALSO wondering WHY…WHY DO I keep coming back for more?!!


The data represented in this article is so mis-leading. No where does it differentiate between acute pain & chronic pain. And doctors are NOT prescribing pain pills more frequently to those with CHRONIC back pain, just the opposite is true. Doctors are now refusing to continue writing prescriptions for chronic pain, leaving patients with no viable options. I guess they forgot the “first do no harm” part of their oath.. I would love to comment more, but I’m seething mad right now. Just stop with this “current opiod epidemic” BS!!!!!

Jean Price

Shouldn’t the REAL message HERE be that ONLY about 15% of all people polled regarding back pain were given SOME TYPE of prescription pain medication?! Wouldn’t that be BETTER AND TRUER information!?

I quote your reported study…..
“58 percent of respondents who suffered from back pain in the last 12 months indicated that they sought medical care. Among those experiencing such pain, 70 percent went to a medical doctor, 14 percent to a chiropractor, 4 percent to a nurse practitioner or physician assistant, 3 percent to an alternative medicine practitioner; and 10 percent to some other provider.
The most frequently mentioned treatment recommended by a medical professional was prescription painkillers at 40 percent. Other treatments prescribed were exercise/physical therapy, 31 percent; injections, 20 percent; massage, 17 percent; steroids, 17 percent; over-the-counter painkillers,
13 percent; surgery, 12 percent; and some other treatment, 37 percent.”

(**What I can’t figure out from the beginning is if the WHOLE 3000 surveyed actually had back pain or just 51% of them did! So I gave you the benefit of the doubt and calculated some things based on the whole 3000 having some kind of back pain! The numbers below would be dramatically different if this wasn’t the case, and much less significant then they already are! As it is, they still point up how the results weren’t really looked at or reported appropriately, in my opinion!!)

SO OKAY…so let’s say 58% of roughly 3000 people POLLED sought some type of medical care for their back pain That would be about 1740 people. Of those then, 70%…or 1218 people went to a medical doctor. And of those…a whopping 40% or 487 people were prescribed SOME TYPE of “painkillers”!! That would be ONLY about 15% of ALL The people who were having back pain!

UNFORTUNATELY, we don’t know whether this was simply 800mg ibuprofen, which IS by prescription only….or ONE of the many other anti inflammatory medications available only by prescription…or if it was a low dose opioid or muscle relaxant! Isn’t “painkiller” just a little sensationalized, also…how about pain medicine or medication!? And you actually have the CDC GUIDELINES! highlighted for further information on addiction in reference to the doctors quote?! That’s hard to believe!

I must need a break from all of this and certainly from this kind of reporting!! A serious break! For one thing,..this was merely a POLL…A SURVEY…not a great way to get firm medical information! Especially after the fact! And for another thing…number and percentages don’t mean much when real people who are hurting are involved! Wasted effort to even read this! Actually it’s kind of painful to think NPR would waste their efforts like this, too!


While your staff did a better job reviewing this survey than other journalists, I do have a problem with one of the quotes in this story:

“These data show that when the patients do seek care, they are often prescribed pain-killers. Compounding this challenge, back pain sufferers who are prescribed opioids for pain may be particularly at risk for dependency and addiction. Curbing inappropriate opioid prescriptions for chronic pain is a focus of efforts by providers to combat the current opioid epidemic,” Dr. Jain added.

If you look back at the original research, there is NO mention of opioids. The survey simply lumps ALL prescription pain medications into a single bucket. Therefore, we don’t know if someone was prescribed a prescription NSAID, a muscle relaxant, an antidepressant, an antiseizure medication or an opioid. The study only breaks out “steroids.”

Based on the data from the study, this is how I interpret the data:
1) Half the time we have lower back pain we go to the doctor, and the older you get, the more likely you are to have pain and require treatment.
2) Most people are trying OTC pain relievers or other methods to relieve their pain so, by the time they get to the doctor, only a small percentage (less than 7%) are told to use OTC medications
3) Doctors, who should be using “evidence-based” treatments, are still recommending solutions that have been shown to provide NO benefit. This is happening somewhere between 16% to 50% of the time!
4) The success of the therapy recommended is highly correlated with the person’s income.
5) Doctors recommend prescriptions for back pain roughly 40% of the time they end up in the Dr’s office or roughly 20% of the time overall. There is NO data breaking out the type of medication that is prescribed. By combining all the possible types of pharmacological treatments, the study makes it appear that opioids are being freely distributed.

From this study there are 2 critical items that would require more study:
1) Why are doctors recommending treatments that have been shown to be ineffective and no better than a placebo when they should be using “evidenced based treatments?”
2) Why is the a high correlation between income and pain reduction? Is it the insurance coverage? Is it the types of jobs? Is it where they work? There are quite a few variables here that need study!

Ibin Aiken

Opioid medication for:”millions” of people IS the LAST legal way, prescribed by skillful physicians for the chronic pain patient to escape severe, continuous, needless…..pain. WHY will CDC and accompanying policy makers not publish all the success narratives from the chronic pain patient? Robbing “Peter” to pay “Paul”!!!!!!

Ibin Aiken

It took over 3 years, and two surgeries for lower back pain, lost wages, and many sleepless nights for me to be prescribed opioid medication. Chiropractic, massage, heat pad treatment and ice did in fact “help but, in the end opioid therapy was advised, and introduced to HELP me continue, prosperously, mentally well, and actively for over 20 years .Injections, infusions, and physical therapy were ALL used by this patient BEFORE sufficient opioid medication therapy was introduced to my individual physical impairment.

The CDC misguide-line and proponents, authors, published inadequate studies in the RUSH effort to curb real drug ABUSE!. It does not make any common sense to make those in compliance of use of opioid medications to suffer, needlessly, in the effort to curb opioid abuse and the mortality rate “associated” with opioid MEDICATION. I would dare say the chronic pain patient in “compliance” with skillful physician prescribing has never even CONSIDERED using illicit opioids for pain control…..until the CDC misguided-line was introduced.

I was placed on elevated blood pressure medication BEFORE stroke or heart attack and the medication has been periodically adjusted due to my personal, individual needs!The SAME with our opioid medication. I know many people now, some family, and friends that are needlessly suffering, losing there jobs and unfortunately speaking of the last radical method of pain control NOW available to us/them. It seems that CDC has ONLY concentrated on ONE of a complex series of situations in their stated “opioid epidemic”. The only problem with millions of opioid treated chronic pain patients that is now occurring is being CAUSED by the CDC mis-guided-line.

There is not much gained by telling each individuals narrative of why or how we/they have arrived at treatment for severe, continuous pain. I am sure CDC realizes that people truly need sufficient treatment for a health condition that we can not control without the skill of our physicians. The policing of opioid prescribing has worked for decades. A “pill mill” would eventually be found out and proper procedures were taken. The mis-guided-line is a conceived, convenient, effort to criminalize, condemn, and prosecute those of us who……have committed no crime. They simply “changed the rules”. I would like to know the actual number of people that are truly benefiting from the mis-guide-line. I read that millions of us are NOT benefiting from the mis-guided-line by CDC effort and is only causing real chronic pain patients to suffer, needlessly. The abusers’ thought patterns CAN NOT be altered by the mis-guided-line. Only the innocent are being caused to receive insufficient healthcare by the few narrow minded policy makers. CDC is vital, in the theater of world healthcare but, because ONE person became addicted to opioids when he felt that it was his physicians fault, has instigated the mis-guided-line. It sounds like a “you” problem to me!!. The mis-guided-line is senseless, purposed, unyielding “good”, ENFORCED, persecution.

Roberta Glick

It’s too bad that Dr. Jain makes statements inferring that people with back pain are “a particular risk” for dependency and addiction” with absolutely no data or evidence to back that up and then goes on to again Infer that opioids are innapropriate for chronic pain” Really? All such prescriptions are innappropriate? For all patients?

Is there no room for the other side of the story? The part, supported I might add, by articles in reputable publications, and by evidence- based medicine, that shows for some patients with chronic pain do benefit greatly from opioids. And that this population take their meds responsibly and do not become addicted. As for physical dependency on an opioid is no different than a diabetic’s physical dependency on insulin! The so- called “war on opioids” is, in fact focused wrongly on people who have legitimate need, for whom other treatment methods, other meds, etc, have failed and who merely are seeking to be able to function. These people, and I know as I am one of them, don’t know what ” getting high ” is. These people and their physicians work diligently together to find some quality of life. Each patient is different.

Dr. Jain lumps all together. It is necessary for those involved in efforts to stop the legitimate, appropriate and reasoned use of opiates, to recognize that among this sub section of those who use opioids the percentage of abuse or addiction is almost nonexistent. It is imperative that physicians be the ones to make medical decisions about THEIR patients and that if some physicians are found to prescribe innappropriately, that is recognized as a separate problem.

There is more than one side to the story of this opioid epidemic. It needs to be told. Patients and physicians who prescribe an use opioids appropriately and responsibly need to be heard

Kristine Lund

This article points to opiods being the problem and not the underlying issue of how we deal with chronic or intractable pain. I have not experienced doctors I have seen handing out opiods. I have intractable pain from a collapsing spine from Osteoporosis. No doctors want to prescribe anymore because of all the negative hype of the danger of opiods. Because of the hysteria people like me have to suffer from lack of understanding that there are people who literally can not get out of bed or function without some of these medications. This is not to say that opiods should be a used without trying all other options first. The elephant in the room is the people who suffer greatly in spite of all other interventions. People like me committ suicide without intervention. Imagine a world where the pain you experience is acute and never heals or gets better. We do exist and need to have a voice.

William Dorn

I would love to come off pain medicine but it allows me to enjoy life. I injured my back two years ago and the pain left me in bed in agony. I was forced to retire and draw my social security early at 62. I have no insurance and can not afford other treatments. These medicines have givin my life back. I do not get high on them and am not a addict. Millions of americans are just like me they just want to be able to enjoy there families and be productive citizens. Please dont take our lives away from us we agree that illegal drugs are a crime but the medicines we take have been used safely for thousands of years. Please let doctors treat there patients and dont scare them from doing what they where trained to do HELP PEOPLE.

Kathy C

This is an extremely misleading Statement. The Headline is written to grab attention, and overstates the results of the survey. The casual reader would get the impression, that they are handing our “Pain Killers” like candy. Another consideration to is that a percentage of respondents don’t make a distinction between NSAIDS and “Opiates.” They most likely did not make this distinction either. A small percentage of respondents that actually saw a Physician for “Back Pain,” We don’t know the duration either. The question, in the Last 12 Months, avoids that distinction.
These overstated misleading “Surveys” create a climate of misinformed Hysteria. They don’t mention how many times they saw the Physician, or whether this was an ongoing problem. They avoid the question of the intensity of the “Back Pain” there is no difference between a person who gets an ache after fooling around on a Saturday, or a person who was in an accident, and takes occasional medication for Flare Ups.
The most interesting, and meaningful take away from this”Survey” was the Income. People with over 100k incomes had a much better chance of good treatment, and relief. they are the group most likely to be able to take time off from work, afford massages, and most importantly be taken seriously by their Physicians.
The use of “Surveys” is often biased towards a certain outcome. This is a clear example. These “Surveys” are being used to deliberately mislead the Public. They are used now for “Education” most respondents will state that the people they interacted with were nice and helpful. This has nothing to do with the Quality of Education, or the outcome. Even the Medical Industry has jumped on “Customer Service Surveys” these “Surveys” only ask leading questions, and give no more information than the length of Wait Times, and the niceness of the Staff. The Staff is trained to be “nice.” they can nicely deny treatment and give patient the bums rush, but they are nice about it. There are no Questions about the things that might matter. Surveys used to be given a weight, a percentage of overall Score. Not anymore, a gullible public, Policy makers, and Journalists, believe the over stated Conclusions. These “Conclusions” are then overstated in a “Headline” for maximum Click-bait, and reader attention. We are now post fact, and post Science. This survey is no more “Scientific” than the ones that say Chiropractors can Cure Pain.
These “Surveys should really be broken down by a Statistician, before they are Published as “Fact.” The Headline would be boring if stated Factually, virtually no one would even bother to read it.

Yea IBM Watson is just who I’d want to determine if my chronic back pain bulging disk neck fusions titanium plates and hernations deserve pain medication. God forbid I become addicted to pain medication like opioids , considering now I have no quality of life and have become socially isolated and know I have nothing to look forward to but pain. Yes god forbid I become addicted to anything that relieves pain that hinders my movement keeps me from productitivity. Oh please IBM Watson thank god your survey jumped on the stupid band wagon of dysfunction. Where we know to turn with out Drs big pharmacy and our DEA to lead the way…….there’s this thing called Karma…. What comes round goes round. Just because Drs n Watson IBM ( inferior blastphom mess) says its so… Doesn’t make it so. My only hope at this point is karma.


I don’t understand how a regular doctor prescribing pain meds, i have to go to a PAIN MANAGEMENT doctor to get my pain meds, maybe its just my state, i don’t know. EVERYTHING NEEDS TO DONE THE SAME


Prescription pain killers does not always mean opiates. I think this can be misleading.

Personally, I think one of the reasons pain is not taken seriously by family, friends and often doctors is because most people complain of pain.There is a world of difference in someone experiencing back pain they can take OTC meds and non opiates for and chronic severe pain that prevents a person from doing Activities Of Daily Living. Reports like this often confuse the issues.


Who am I to say…but as a very long time chronic pain person who has had every treatment out there, and seen more doctors than I care to remember…
I find it very hard to believe that ‘most’ doctors would start off prescribing opioids for back pain.
I’m sure it happens, but I tend to believe that the average opioid user was started on it once other treatments, failed surgeries etc proved negative.
Once again…when will we see more surveys and studies done on us?! And bring to light the true story of Chronic Pain Conditions and the necessity of opioids for treatment for most.
What will it take to have heads turned our way????

Tim Mason

“Pain in the Aging Population”
With number of people reaching the “golden years” an increase in prescription “pain killers “for this group is increasing. Without a doubt there is a verifiable, legitimate reason for this increase in any statistical analysis,
The term “Pain Killers” is old itself and needs updating.
The older population is actually under treated and at a low risk for addiction {see peer reviewed National Institute on Health below.

We can determine from arrest records and accidental deaths that the # 1 risk for addiction is YOUTH,
The average age of people coming and going out of a methadone treatment is well under 30 years of age.

“For patients with opioid use disorder, clinicians should offer or arrange evidence-based treatment, such as medication-assisted treatment with buprenorphine or methadone.”

The treatments above would be for those that lacked the ability to control, or manage their own medication.
Many of these people suffer from a socioeconomic disease or type of mental illness and are networked with a group of friends suffering the same problems including low to poor skillset, broken homes, inherited addiction via genetics and poor coping skills.
For many of these individuals the only help (though controversial in today’s mindset) would be a Faith Based Program with new friends and a well selected support group.

It has been said “Religion is the last refuge of the criminal”. I personally know of some that only take these avenues when facing jail time or heavy fines.
What I said may seem cruel but it is the truth and I do have empathy for these people.

Be Well

Candi Simonis

The focus is always on the opioid “epidemic” and the bad now these medications. What about the good of these medications that help millions of Americans that live with incurable chronic pain disease? Look at the 45% said pain improved, 25% said it went away… so Dr Vain, let’s not look at the 70% the opioid medication helped?
There are 100 million Americans who have chronic pain disease, which is incurable. All the emphasis on the bad of opioids. I do not see bad in helping 70% of the millions of Americans these medications help.
The risk of addiction to properly prescribed opioids for chronic pain disease is actually extremely low.
Our physicians work with us. We deserve relief for our pain, like any other disease patient. We are being denied medication readily available to us and being descriminated against due to our medication needs. No other disease is scrutinized for the medication needed. This WAR ON PAIN DISEASE HAS TO STOP…