Intractable pain, headache or otherwise, is a devastating and life-controlling experience. The need to effectively and aggressively control pain is a fundamental tenet of clinical care. In the past several years, increasing advocacy for continuous opioid therapy has become an important, if not controversial, theme in the development of treatment guidelines and teaching programs. Ironically, the increasing willingness of physicians to prescribe scheduled opioids for their headache and pain patients has occurred in the absence of compelling data demonstrating efficacy or long-term safety. To the contrary, two meta-analyses on chronic noncancer pain (CNCP) and one long-term uncontrolled study on headache patients demonstrate a relatively small number of patients benefiting from the treatment. Recent neuroscience data on the effects of opioids on the brain raise serious concern for long-term safety and also provide the basis for the mechanism by which chronic opioid use might induce progression of headache frequency and severity. Significant adverse effects, including influence on sexual hormonal balances, physical and psychological dependence, the development of opioid-induced hyperalgesia, and cardiac arrhythmia and sudden death that can be seen with standard dosages of methadone, make a strong argument against widespread use of continuous opioid therapy (COT) in otherwise healthy young and middle-aged headache patients.
We believe that COT should be used in rare circumstances for chronic headache patients, and propose initial guidelines for selecting patients and monitoring treatment. The physician should be well versed in the details of opioid prescribing, administration, and monitoring, and should be prepared to discontinue opioids when clinical justification, patient behavior, or failure to achieve therapeutic goals make discontinuance necessary.