Chronic noncancer pain (CNCP) is a major health problem, for which opioids provide one treatment option. However, evidence is needed about side effects, efficacy, and risk of misuse or addiction. This meta-analysis was carried out with these objectives: to compare the efficacy of opioids for CNCP with other drugs and placebo; to identify types of CNCP that respond better to opioids; and to determine the most common side effects of opioids. We searched MEDLINE, EMBASE, CENTRAL (up to May 2005) and reference lists for randomized controlled trials of any opioid administered by oral or transdermal routes or rectal suppositories for CNCP (defined as pain for longer than 6 mo). Extracted outcomes included pain, function or side effects. Methodological quality was assessed with the Jadad instrument; analyses were conducted with Revman 4.2.7. Included were 41 randomized trials involving 6019 patients: 80% of the patients had nociceptive pain (osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis or back pain); 12%, neuropathic pain (postherpetic neuralgia, diabetic neuropathy or phantom limb pain); 7%, fibromyalgia; and 1%, mixed pain. The methodological quality of 87% of the studies was high. The opioids studied were classified as weak (tramadol, propoxyphene, codeine) or strong (morphine, oxycodone). Average duration of treatment was 5 (range 1-16) weeks. Dropout rates averaged 33% in the opioid groups and 38% in the placebo groups. Opioids were more effective than placebo for both pain and functional outcomes in patients with nociceptive or neuropathic pain or fibromyalgia. Strong, but not weak, opioids were significantly superior to naproxen and nortriptyline, and only for pain relief. Among the side effects of opioids, only constipation and nausea were clinically and statistically significant. Weak and strong opioids outperformed placebo for pain and function in all types of CNCP. Other drugs produced better functional outcomes than opioids, whereas for pain relief they were outperformed only by strong opioids. Despite the relative shortness of the trials, more than one-third of the participants abandoned treatment.