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Research Summary

Persistent Pain Increases Risk of Relapse

Persistent pain is prevalent among people with substance use disorders. It is not known, however, whether such pain increases the risk of relapse following periods of abstinence.

Researchers assessed data on pain and substance use in 397 adults who, as part of a larger randomized trial, had been interviewed periodically in the 24 months after their discharge from an urban, residential alcohol and drug detoxification unit. Pain was measured with the pain item on the SF-36 Health Survey. Analyses were adjusted for potential confounders (e.g., demographics, addiction severity, depressive symptoms).

  • Sixteen percent of subjects reported persistent pain (moderate-to-higher levels of pain at all available interviews) in the 24 months after detoxification.

  • Subjects reporting persistent pain were significantly more likely than those with mild or no pain to have used the following in the past 30 days at the 24-month follow-up:

    • heroin/opioids not prescribed for pain (odds ratio, 5.4);

    • heavy amounts of alcohol* (odds ratio, 2.2).


Persistent pain is common among alcohol and drug users who have undergone residential detoxification and increases the likelihood of relapse. This study suggests that clinicians must be careful to screen for pain symptoms in patients with substance dependence. When persistent pain is present, thoughtful management is required to minimize risks associated with undertreatment while not fostering opioid analgesic abuse.

Marc N. Gourevitch, MD, MPH
*>3 drinks on at least 1 day or intoxication


Larson MJ, Paasche-Orlow M, Cheng DM, et al. Persistent pain is associated with substance use after detoxification: a prospective cohort analysis. Addiction. 2007;(Online Early Articles): doi: 10.1111/j.1360-0443.2007.01759.x