New campaign in parts of the North East to cut the long term use of strong painkillers

Words by Health Correspondent Helen Ford

A new campaign has begun in parts of the North East to cut the long term use of strong painkillers and find new ways for patients to manage their conditions. 

The prescribing of opioids rose sharply over a number of years. It is now recognised that, if taken for many months or years, people can become dependent. Now NHS bodies have come together across Sunderland and County Durham to encourage patients to work with their GP to find alternative ways to control their symptoms. 

We know these medicines, if people stop taking them suddenly, can have really unpleasant and really quite dangerous withdrawal effects so we wouldn't tell people to stop taking them immediately. What we would say is have a conversation, start to think about what alternatives might be available as treatments and you might be able to reduce or even to stop taking these medicines.

Ewan Maule, Sunderland Clinical Commissioning Group pharmacist

County Durham GP Dr Dagny Samuel says the search for alternatives to painkillers is likely to be a long journey for patients - which requires them to work with their family doctor or pharmacist. Simple methods can involve basic exercise. Mindfulness, acupuncture and cognitive behavioural therapy may also be considered. 

Pain is hard for someone to deal with and to actually make the patient aware and understand the concept of living better with the pain in the background is a huge thing and it takes a long time to develop that trusted relationship.

Dr Dagny Samuel, East Durham Medical Group

The Clinical Commissioning Groups involved in the campaign say they are focusing on changing the long term use of opioid painkillers. Short term use - of three months or less - and their prescription for cancer patients is not included. 

Posters like this one appeared across Sunderland, highlighting the issue

Meanwhile, the pharmaceutical sector body, the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry told us:

Opioids have played - and continue to play - an important role in the management of severe pain, where alternative treatments are not suitable, but any decision to prescribe opioids should be taken between a doctor and a patient with the benefits and risks clearly explained, including the risks of dependency.

Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry 

While so much of the NHS is concentrating on the COVID pandemic, Ewan Maule from Sunderland Clinical Commissioning Group believes it is also vital to focus on the issue of pain management. With some non-urgent operations such as hip and knee replacements postponed from earlier in the year, he says it has never been more important to support people in coping with pain. is a website that provides support and advice for people starting to think about options for pain management.