But doctors from the Mayo Clinic have discovered that it's far from being safer. In a follow-up of nearly 360,000 patients prescribed an opioid to ease pain after surgery, the doctors found that suspicious repeat prescribing, long after the pain had gone, was most common among those given tramadol. More than 7 per cent had repeat prescriptions up to 180 days after surgery, one per cent were still taking the drug 270 days afterwards, and 0.5 per cent had 10 or more prescriptions that would last them at least 120 days.
The discovery "doesn't tie to the idea that tramadol is less habit forming than other opioids," said Mayo researcher Dr Molly Jeffery.
Its supposed safer status has led to tramadol becoming the third most widely prescribed opioid. It was approved in the US in 1995, marketed as Ultram or ConZip, and became a legally controlled substance in 2014, although with the rating of a schedule IV drug because it was not considered to be as addictive as most other Schedule II opioids.