First, a pause for acronym education. Just when you were getting a handle on MEDs... let me introduce you to NNT (number needed to treat). This is a common measure in clinical studies that answers the question: how many people need to be treated with a given intervention for 1 person to receive a defined effect. A lower NNT means the intervention is more effective (1 is the ideal... if you treat 1 person and that person achieves the defined effect, an NNT = 1 means you've got a really effective treatment). A higher NNT means the intervention is less effective.
For instance, how many people need to be treated with Oxycodone 15 mg for 1 person to receive 50% pain relief? Turns out the answer to that question is 4.6.
How many people need to be treated with a combination of ibuprofen 200 mg + acetaminophen 500 mg for 1 person to receive 50% pain relief? Drum roll, please........ 1.6.
Why do providers turn to opioids so frequently in light of data such as this? Why does this inherent belief exist that suggests opioids are more powerful analgesics? Dr. Teater sites several reasons, but the two that caught my eye:
- Opioids exhibit powerful psychotherapeutic effects not found with ibuprofen and acetaminophen. If a patient's back hurts, tylenol and advil will work fine. If a patient's back hurts and they're depressed, opioids are more likely to be perceived by the patient as effective. This sounds obvious to most of us, but separating the clinical effects of opioids into "analgesic" vs. "psychotherapeutic" has significant implications for the use of these medications.
- The pharma companies have spent several billion dollars over two decades getting doctors comfortable with opioids. Where there's money to be made... there's usually a rep standing by to help a doctor make a decision that may not be fully informed.
Bottom line: You've been right all along. For most patients, ibuprofen and acetaminophen are safer and more effective than opioids.