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Most people don't realise long-term opioid use can make pain worse, research finds

By medical reporter Sophie Scott and the Specialist Reporting Team's Celina Edmonds and Loretta Florance

When doctors prescribed pain medication for Stuart Leamer's back injury, he never imagined the drugs would almost ruin his life.


 "I missed kids' birthdays, I missed grandkids' birthdays, fishing, going out in the garden," he said.

"I was virtually numb, it got to the stage where nothing really mattered."

"It was pretty much limiting me on anything. It was a major event even to go shopping."

The great grandfather had injured his back while building a friend's house.

Mr Leamer had to give up work and in the mid-90s began taking pain relievers with codeine in them.

Within 18 months, he had moved onto oxycodone and finally, morphine.

Key points:

  • New research has found many Australians are unaware that taking opioids can actually make pain worse
  • NPS MedicineWise says as many as 150 people are hospitalised due to harm from pharmaceutical opioids every day
  • Since June 1, opioid package sizes have been halved, and doctors have been forced to review prescriptions more regularly


"It got to the stage that I couldn't function properly. I couldn't make a coherent sentence," he said.

Mr Leamer had been on opioid painkillers for more than two decades and had been visiting his doctor every month for prescriptions.

For the last six years, he was mostly bed-ridden — and cared for by his wife and partner of 48 years, Tammy.

"He couldn't move. Even the kids would say I'm not coming around anymore because Dad's always in bed," she said.

The Victorian man was at his lowest point when Tammy went away to visit family.

He felt so low he contemplated suicide.

"I was really down," he said. "I was fed up with everything."

But the 67-year-old did not realise the morphine was causing many of his problems.

"I just thought it was the gradual deterioration of me," he said.


A life-changing trip to emergency

Rushed to hospital with pneumonia in September last year, Mr Leamer had to be resuscitated twice and spent time in intensive care.

Doctors told him he had to come off the opioids and he would only be able to take paracetamol.

"I was really mad at the time, really angry," Mr Leamer said.

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