Are we a nation of pill poppers?
A recent survey that took a snapshot of painkiller use across the UK reveals, somewhat alarmingly, that nearly 2 in 5 people (37%) say they have to take painkillers in order to feel well enough to work. It also finds that 1 in 3 people using medication are worried about becoming dependent on drugs in order to manage their lives.

The survey of 3,100 people was undertaken by Nuffield Health and suggests that people often reach for painkillers as an easy and inexpensive way to treat symptoms instead of trying to address underlying causes.

The survey results show that use of potentially addictive drugs in the UK is frequent and common.

Long term use of these drugs can have significant side effects that include sickness, drowsiness, and stomach problems such as bleeding and ulcers. Other long term effects include more serious issues like kidney problems, heart disease and liver disease.

The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) issued warnings last year that overuse can lead to persistent headaches if using these for more than 10-15 days per month.

The survey also reveals that:

  • More than half (54%) of respondents said they were using painkillers to manage pain or injuries over the previous year. Interviews with these revealed that 1 in 7 (14%) was exceeding the recommended safe dose, and nearly 1 in 4 (23%) was taking between one and five painkillers every day.
  • Just over 1 in 4 (26%) of respondents said they had been taking painkillers for more than five years. Of these “long term users”, nearly 4 in 10 (38%) were worried about their dependency on painkillers.
  • Over 1 in 3 (36%) painkiller users are taking strong versions that can become habit-forming, such as codeine and Tramadol.
    7% of painkiller users are using even stronger drugs, opiates, including morphine and pethidine.
  • 1 in 10 painkiller users says they are using sleeping pills.

Although there is good evidence that manual therapy such as osteopathy, physiotherapy and chiropractic, especially when combined with an effective exercise programme, may be more appropriate when dealing with back or neck pain and headaches. The survey showed that only 1 in 5 (19%) sought this route.

I find this very surprising as most conditions that I see do not need pain killers for very long and often one of the first things I do is to look at what people are using and try to decrease or stop these as soon as possible. There seems to be an increasing trend to use painkillers as a quick fix solution but often patients are not aware of the side effects and that they do not address the real cause of most of the pain that I see. This can easily lead to a vicious cycle of taking ever increasing dosages as the condition becomes chronic. It is really important to seek expert advice quickly as research shows that early intervention is key to getting rid of pain.

I always advise my patients that they should only be taking pain killers if they cannot deal with the pain or if it is stopping them sleeping and usually then no longer than a couple of weeks. Otherwise it is about listening to your body and learning better strategies to avoid pain.

I think that the main outcome of this survey is that more people could benefit from visiting an osteopath, physiotherapist or chiropractor to treat the cause of their pain, rather than reaching for the pill bottle.


Steve Morris is an Osteopath with over 30 years’ experience. He is a specialist in the field of non-surgical treatment of disc conditions, especially sciatica. He uses various different treatment mediums, from hands on osteopathy and acupuncture to the use of mechanical decompression with IDD Therapy, for which he is one of the country’s leading exponents and experts.

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