A clinical trial, conducted by researchers at the University of Warwick and The James Cook University Hospital, found that nearly a third (29 per cent) of patients on the treatment programme had come off opioids within a year.
There are currently over 1 million people in the UK on prescription opioids, according to NHS figures. Over 50,000 have been taking opioids for 6 months or more, costing the health service an estimated £500m every year.
Recent NHS initiatives have managed to reduce opioid prescribing by eight per cent, saving an estimated 350 lives.
Participants in the trial had been regularly taking strong opioids for at least three months.
The study compared two treatments, dividing participants randomly into two groups. One group had access to their existing GP care, plus a self-help booklet and relaxation CD; the second group had the same and also took part in an intervention programme specially developed by the study team.
The intervention programme included sessions on coping techniques, stress management, goal setting, mindfulness, posture and movement advice, how to manage any withdrawal symptoms and pain control after opioids.
Participants also completed questionnaires about their everyday functioning and painkillers at intervals throughout the trial.
Nearly a third (29 per cent) of those who took part in the intervention programme were able to fully come off opioids completely, compared to just 7 per cent who were treated on the other programme.
There was no difference between the two groups in terms of their pain, or how pain interfered with their lives, researchers said.
Harbinder Kaur Sandhu, Professor of Health Psychology at the University of Warwick, who led the clinical trial said: “The findings from the trial are extremely promising. Many people who have been taking prescription painkillers over a long period time suffer with harmful side effects but can feel reluctant to come off them because they think it could make their pain worse, or they do not know how to approach this with their clinician.
“Our trial has found a treatment that could help people to come off opioids, in a way that is safe, supportive and gradual. It’s a supported decision between the patient and the clinician, and not forced tapering.”
Prof Sandhu said the programme could help patients to find “alternative ways to manage their pain” and overcome the challenges of withdrawal.
Professor Sam Eldabe, clinical trial co-lead and consultant in pain medicine at The James Cook University Hospital, said: “Patients taking opioids lose interest in social interaction with family and friends and gradually withdraw from society into an opioid-induced mental fog.
“Despite appreciating the social impact of the drugs, most patients utterly dread a worsening of their pain should they attempt to reduce their opioids.
“Our study shows clearly that opioids can be gradually reduced and stopped within no actual worsening of the pain. This confirms our suspicions that opioids have very little long-term impact on persistent pain.”