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How should Steve Arnott tackle his painkiller addiction? A health psychologist’s perspective


Those following the hit BBC series Line of Duty will be aware of Detective Inspector Steve Arnott’s spiralling dependency on over-the-counter painkillers. The story follows him as he copes with a debilitating back injury after being attacked by Balaclava Man.

Avoiding compulsory drugs tests at work and necking handfuls of pills with a glass of red wine, DI Arnott’s story is very dramatic. But it is an exaggerated version of how many people in the UK are dealing with the tiring business of constant pain and sleepless nights and becoming dependent on seemingly innocent prescription and then over-the-counter pain killers to help them live their lives.

So, how should DI Arnott tackle his problem and begin the regain control of his symptoms?

Dr Harbinder Sandhu, a health psychologist from Warwick Medical School, is an expert on pain management and heads up The Improving the Wellbeing of Opioid Treated Chronic Pain (I-WOTCH) clinical trial funded by the National Institute of Health Research, testing the effectiveness and cost effectiveness of a programme to help people with long term non-cancer pain reduce their strong pain killers.

She says: “Painkillers work for some and allow functioning, however caution is needed when the risks of taking strong pain killers far outweigh the benefits, or when the body becomes tolerant and the dose is increased with no additional impact on pain and an increased risk of dependency.”

“Strong pain killers can seriously impair judgement which is not something DI Arnott needs at this time. Should he divulge his problems, his GP and occupational health department would help him manage his painkillers and continue working. My advice to DI Arnott, or anyone else with similar problems, is to reach out and talk to someone.”

Safe withdrawal

“Coming off painkillers needs to be done safely, with a slow withdrawal and support from healthcare professionals,” explains Dr Sandhu. “Simply stopping can lead to serious and unpleasant withdrawal symptoms. People who want to come off large doses of prescription painkillers should agree a suitable tapering plan with their GP, or other healthcare professional before starting the process.”

Look into other pain management techniques

“There are other pain management techniques to explore,” says Dr Sandhu. “Non-pharmacological strategies based on rebuilding a quality of life and living better with pain can include managing mood and stress, setting goals, learning to pace activities to name a few.”

Resources and organisations who can help

There are a number of useful online resources which help people to begin to understand and manage pain. Good places to start are websites like The Pain Tool Kit, Flippin Pain and Living Well With Pain.

Ultimately living with long term pain can affect many parts of a person’s life. There is growing support and research for pain management strategies and safe withdrawal from strong painkillers if a person wants to do this. The first step is to speak to your GP or prescriber.



30 April 2021


Dr Harbinder SandhuDr Harbinder Sandhu combines her clinical role as a Health Psychologist and her academic research in the area of behavioural change interventions in the management of long term pain. She is involved in designing, leading, collaborating, publishing and dissemination of results in a range of studies which incorporate mixed methodologies.

Her research interests include: health and wellbeing, communication in healthcare and application of health psychology in the design of complex interventions for behaviour change in the management of long term conditions.

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