It’s estimated that 7.1 million adults in England take prescribed opioids or gabapentinoid pain medication.

Medications such as codeine, morphine and tramadol are often prescribed as a ‘quick fix’ after an injury or operation. However, these can lead to addiction and even death if they are misused or taken for a prolonged period of time.

Side effects can occur in up to four out of every five people taking pain medication

Side effects of pain medication include:

  • Nausea
  • Headaches
  • Stomach pain and constipation
  • Dizziness and falls
  • Anxiety
  • Changes in personality
  • Sexual problems
  • Addiction

For more information about possible side effects of specific pain medications please visit

Many people don’t realise that there is a change in how our bodies process pain if it has been going on for longer than 3 months.

Acute or short-term pain is usually in response to injury, trauma or damage to the body such as nerve damage, broken limbs etc. In acute pain the use of pain medication can be very effective.

However after 3-6 months the original damage to the body has usually healed or settled as much as it is going to (unless it is due to an inflammatory condition). The pain that is felt is then due to the body becoming oversensitive and giving off pain signals in an uncontrolled way. In this case it is called long-term or persistent pain.

No-one knows why this happens in some people, but it is a common condition that affects more than 1 in 5 of us (British Pain Society). This kind of pain needs managing in a different way to acute pain.

A really good 5 minute film to explain pain is

Does this mean that the pain is all in my head?

No. Although the original damage or trauma may have healed or settled, the feeling of pain is still very real. This just means that treatments that focus on the original injury are not likely to be effective and it has to be managed in different ways.

Why don’t painkillers exist in persistent pain?

The term ‘painkiller’ is misleading as it implies that the medicine will kill or fix pain completely.

Although pain medication can play a part in managing persistent pain they do not work for everyone, and even if you get some benefit they are unlikely to remove all of the pain.

Some people also find that the side effects, which can occur in up to four out of every five people taking pain medication (Faculty of Pain Medicine), can be more of a problem than the pain.

What about inflammatory pain?

Inflammatory pain, such as arthritis, can also be different as it may be due to continuing damage to the body. This needs managing differently, and may also not respond to some types of pain medication. In these cases medications aim to limit the damage and treat the cause, and could include anti-inflammatory medicines such as ibuprofen or steroids, or medicines that modify the response to the pain. Surgery may also be useful for some types e.g. hip replacements in osteoarthritis. However if these medicines don’t work for you it may be that the damage is no longer active, and the pain has become persistent

"Painkillers Don't Exist."

This is a local NHS campaign highlighting the different types of pain that can be experienced, the risks of using long-term pain medication and alternative strategies to help you live well with pain. For further information go to

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