Primary Health Care Research & Development


Patterns of prescription and concern about opioid analgesics for chronic non-malignant pain in general practice

Lance M. McCrackena1 c1, Sophie C. Vellemana1 and Christopher Ecclestona1

a1 Pain Management Unit, Royal National Hospital for Rheumatic Diseases and The University of Bath, Bath, UK


Aim The purpose of this study was to investigate the circumstances of opioid prescription among general practitioners (GPs) in the UK.

Background Prescription of opioids for chronic pain, particularly non-malignant chronic pain, remains controversial. In the midst of this controversy, patterns of actual prescription and influences on these patterns are not well understood.

Method A mail survey was posted to 1192 GPs and it was returned by 414 (35.0%). The survey addressed the frequency and reluctance in GP prescription of opioids for chronic pain. It also sampled their attitudes and concerns about opioids, including their views on appropriateness and effectiveness, adverse effects and potential social pressures presumed to impact on prescribing.

Findings Overall, 57.9% of GPs reported they sometimes, frequently, or always, prescribe strong opioids for chronic pain, which was of significantly lower frequency than for prescribing of weak opioids, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or tricyclic antidepressant medications. Similarly, 69.1% reported a reluctance to prescribe strong opioids for chronic non-malignant pain, which was a significantly greater reluctance than for cancer pain, for example. GPs who were men, younger, had fewer years experience and worked full time (as opposed to part time), were more likely to prescribe opioids. Practice guideline use was unrelated to prescribing but those with specialty training were more likely to prescribe. Interestingly, a majority of GPs (83.0%) felt that opioids are effective for chronic non-malignant pain; however, they worry about long-term commitment (such as managing dosing and repeat prescriptions), addiction and other adverse events.

Conclusions Based on multivariate analyses, both frequency of prescribing and reluctance were predicted by a combination of concerns about effects on patient behaviour, professional competency concerns and degree of belief in opioids as an effective option. These results may suggest a need for additional GP training in the management of analgesics for chronic non-malignant pain.

(Received September 2007)

(Accepted January 2008)


  • analgesics;
  • chronic pain;
  • general practice;
  • opioids;
  • prescribing practices


c1 Pain Management Unit, Royal National Hospital for Rheumatic Diseases, Bath BA1 1RL, UK. Email: