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Pain News Network: Media Hysteria and the Opioid Crisis

Hello, my darlings! Check out my latest column for the Pain News Network!

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I recently received this email from a family member:

Hi Jen,

I was listening to a thing on pain medication and why prescription meds are so dangerous. They turn the receptors off in the brain and the person forgets to breathe.  That part is a totally separate thing from the pain. Dr. Sanjay Gupta was on talking about it. I think that is a very valid argument about overuse of pain meds.

For example, Prince had very valid issues to use the meds and also lived a very clean life style. If he overused, it goes to follow that someone who doesn’t lead a clean lifestyle is in more danger. It’s not the meds as much as the brain receptors. The breathing part is scary. So I’m not such an advocate anymore…..unless you can tell me this isn’t true and why he would say that.

I love you and don’t want anything to happen to you. Xoxoxox

I got mad after reading that, even though I knew she was coming from a place of love and fear. It didn’t take long for me to calm down because I saw the bigger issue.

First off? Yes, those claims are true. They are also massively simplified. Heavy pain medications slow down or impair bodily functions. You’ve seen those opioid-induced constipation commercials. That is why only a select few of the chronic pain club gets high-voltage pills for daily life as opposed to post-surgical pain.

Here’s a great quote from WBUR’s interview with Dr. Howard Fields that explains the difference between addiction and dependence, the latter being what most chronic pain patients experience:

“Addiction really gets to the issue of compulsive overuse of a drug so that it becomes the dominant thing in your life. If you are going to your physician once a month and getting your prescription refilled and you are able to lead a normal life by taking a pill maybe three or four times a day, you’re not addicted.

But if you’re spending all your time in the search of a drug, or trying to get the money to buy that drug, or stealing from your friends, or going around in other people’s medicine cabinets looking for opioids, then you’re addicted.”

My view of this increasingly volatile situation is that opioids — which the majority of pain patients use responsibly — cannot be banned without another medical intervention in place. Yet some pain management clinics are declining to prescribe opioids.

So what’s fueling this explosion of insanity?

Welcome to the opioid crisis media extravaganza. There is currently a media blitz surrounding the national opioid crisis.

  • A doctor in Buffalo was indicted and closed his practice, leaving thousands of his patients without access to pain medication.
  • A California doctor was convicted of murder for writing too many prescriptions (and to be fair, that case was pretty shady).
  • The late pop icon Prince died after allegedly overdosing on opioids (though few talk about his chronic and debilitating pain, a condition that is “criminally under-treated”).

Many, many people have overdosed and/or died. That is undeniable and is certainly a problem. But the national reaction has not been the appropriate response. The CDC guidelines that discourage doctors from prescribing opioids gloss over pain patients like we don’t exist and only add to our desperation. A former FDA commissioner even slanders us.

So many patients are doing everything right — exercise, strength training, meditation, deep breathing, over-the-counter pills, medical marijuana, aqua therapy, physical therapy, chiropractic work, Reiki, crystals, and anything they see that makes a vague promise to help.

Pain can drive sufferers to extreme lengths, be it suicide or illegal drugs like heroin. Patients are far more likely to turn to street drugs if there is no access to proper pain medication. Or, you know, when pharmaceutical companies outright lie about the addictive natures of their pills.

It’s coming out in the news more steadily now, but the rumblings have been around for several years. The opioid crisis may have started partly because OxyContin, “a chemical cousin of heroin,” had addictive qualities and yet was prescribed with abandon.

Purdue Pharma reps went to doctors and told them their pill wasn’t addictive and lasted for twelve straight hours!

In reality, OxyContin presents a serious end-of-dose failure. This is when a drug says it will quiet pain for twelve hours, but in reality only works for eight. This causes patients to take additional pills or stronger ones, which can lead to overdose and addiction.

A four-hour gap? What did Purdue expect to happen?

The knee-jerk reaction to the crisis is to limit the prescriptions of opioids. What does this do to pain patients? It leaves many of us without access to pain management methods that the majority of us have not abused.

Doctors tell sobbing patients that long-term opioids are usually not the answer. But they are the answer for many patients who literally have no other options beside being bed-bound or dead. Those patients are now in grave danger of being driven to extremes. Like that one awful guy who ruins things for everyone else, there have been patients who’ve abused their health care regimens. Sometimes they can’t even help it, like so many of those OxyContin patients who were lied to.

Many of us have to sign pain contracts before we can even dream of receiving opioid prescriptions. These state that our pills are doled out in certain quantities over a set period of time and that they cannot be replaced, supplanted, or in any way refilled for one month. If we lose them, if they get stolen, or if the world explodes, we cannot get more.

We have to get new prescriptions in writing every month. The hard copies have to be delivered to the pharmacy. Our driver’s licenses must be presented to the pharmacist so they can track our pill usage. Then, and only then, do we receive our prescriptions.

Tell me: Why on earth would we jeopardize that? Most of us are responsible. We don’t overuse what we have. We know we can’t, or we’re cut off.

A lot of people say, “You’ll end up hooked.” The medication will change our brains to make us need, need, need, and we will do anything to fill that need.

And yet, both I and other patients in my support groups, online chats, and frequent fliers at the doctor’s office time our prescriptions and take them exactly when due. We pair that with every other over-the-counter intervention we can think of, like wearables, pain patches, creams, and braces. We can’t rely on opioids because they might disappear at any moment.

The current approach to battling the opioid crisis lumps pain patients with true addicts, and it skews the statistics. I’m not naïve enough to say that some addicts didn’t start as pain patients. I know some did. But in my entire decade-plus in the medical system, I personally know of only one person who started on pain medication and ended up in rehab. I know a few more online, but I can count them on one hand.

My fundamental message here is that unless the proper education is provided, even your biggest supporters — your family, your friends, your colleagues — might react to the media hysteria without doing research that contextualizes the data. They might read a tweet or a headline and react out of fear. Stories will keep being conflated.

They might even send an email like the one sent to me. They only mean the best, but it adds to the collective national fear that is leaving thousands upon thousands of pain patients without the treatment we need.

Prohibition didn’t work in the 1920s. This version of Prohibition isn’t going to work either. The sooner we as a society come to that conclusion, the better.

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