New treatment approach helps one in five chronic pain patients stop opioid use

Landmark trial finds combined one-to-one and group support program helps 1 in 5 people quit opioids without increased pain.
Kavita Verma
Man in the background - pill bottles in the foreground
Kicking the opioid habit


In a ground-breaking clinical trial supported by the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR), scientists from the University of Warwick and The James Cook University Hospital in Middlesbrough investigated a novel therapy that may help people stop relying on opioid painkillers to treat chronic pain

Finding an alternative is essential because the NHS spends an estimated £500 million yearly on these drugs, and over 1 million people in the U.K. already use prescription opioids.

Program helps 1 in 5 people stop opioid use

Over 600 participants who had been taking strong opioids daily for at least three months were a part of the I-WOTCH (Improving the Wellbeing of People with Opioid Treated Chronic Pain) trial. These people were chosen from GP offices in the Midlands and North East of England. 

Participants were randomly assigned to receive either their regular GP care plus a self-help book and relaxation CD or the same care plus an intervention plan created by the study team. This trial examined two therapy regimens.

The intervention approach included both one-on-one and group support sessions, with an emphasis on coping mechanisms, stress management, goal setting, mindfulness, advice on proper posture and exercise, management of withdrawal symptoms, and pain management following opioid use. 

Results were impressive after just one year. Only 7% of those who received normal treatment were able to successfully stop using opioids, compared to about 29% of those who took part in the intervention program.

Importantly, the study discovered that participants' pain levels did not increase after they stopped using opioids. Similar levels of pain and difficulties with everyday activities were reported by both groups. This supports the idea that alternative treatments can be just as effective as opioids and implies that opioids have little long-term influence on controlling chronic pain.

Combined group and one-to-one support essential

Harbinder Kaur Sandhu, Professor of Health Psychology at the University of Warwick, who led the clinical trial, said: “Structured, group-based, psycho-educational self-management interventions help people to better manage their daily lives with a long-term condition, including persistent pain, but few of these have specifically targeted patients considering opioid withdrawal."

She expressed confidence regarding the trial's results, pointing out that the therapy provides a secure, encouraging, and methodical approach to assist people in weaning themselves off opioids and properly managing their pain. The training enables patients to discover other methods for dealing with pain, get through withdrawal issues, and perhaps even enhance their general quality of life. 

Personal story of recovery

An 81-year-old Coventry resident named Colin Tysall revealed his experience with opioid addiction. After taking opioids for years to treat his severe back pain brought on by his work as an airplane radiologist, Colin suffered terrible side effects like mental confusion, despair, and a lack of mobility. 

He joined mental health self-help organizations and turned to alternative therapies like fitness in his quest to find a solution. Colin was able to successfully stop taking opioids by gradually cutting back on his medicine, and he found that his pain had greatly decreased.

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