Next month I will be presenting a paper at the annual meeting of ASAM, the American Society of Addiction Medicine. The paper discusses a new method for treating chronic pain, using a combination of buprenorphine and opioid agonists. In my experience, the combination works very well, providing excellent analgesia and at the same time reducing—even eliminating– the euphoria from opioids.
Ten years ago, I would have really been onto something. Back then there were calls from all corners to improve the pain control for patients. The popular belief regarding pain control was that some unfortunate patients were being denied adequate doses of opioid medications. I remember our hospital administrators, in advance of the next JCAHO visit, worried about pain relief in patients who for one or another reason couldn’t describe or report their pain. Posters were put up in each patient room, showing simple drawings of facial expressions ranging from smiles to frowns, so that patients in pain could simply point at the face that exhibited their own level of misery.
What a difference a decade makes! Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of Oxycontin, was fined over $600 million for claims that their medication was less addictive than other, immediate-release pain-killers. Thousands of young Americans have died from overdoses of pain medications, many that came from their parents’ medicine cabinets. Physician members of PROP, Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing, have called out physicians at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health for having ties to Purdue while arguing against added regulations for potent narcotics.
I have tried to present both sides of the pain pill debate, without disclosing my OWN opinions on the issue—at least until today. And I must be at least somewhat ‘fair and balanced,’ because I’ve received angry messages from both sides—from people telling me I’m evil for not understanding their need for pain medications, and from people telling me I’m evil for not respecting the danger of the medications.
By the way… I have a policy of not printing messages that simply call me names, or that tell me how bad a doctor I must be for writing what I do. I love a good argument, so please feel free to comment on ANY points that I’m trying to make. But I don’t think that making efforts to lead a discussion warrants personal attacks—so please, stick to the issues!
Today, though, I would like to share a couple thoughts on the issue. The thoughts came after a discussion with one of my patients with chronic pain. I have been presenting one side, then the other side, and back again, trying to remain neutral… but from all that I’ve seen as a psychiatrist and as an anesthesiologist, some things cannot be denied.
1. Some people do have chronic pain that responds to opioids. Many doctors—including the doctors who are afraid of the DEA, or the doctors who don’t want to deal with the hard work of prescribing opioids, or the doctors who want a simple world where ‘pain pills are always bad’—don’t want to admit the truth of this statement. This is, with apologies to Al Gore, a very inconvenient truth.
I find it interesting that doctors who don’t want to prescribe pain pills act as if chronic pain does not exist– as if the suffering of people with painful disorders is less important in some way, if it lasts too long. Every prescriber is aware of the need to treat acute pain, but when it comes to chronic pain, the difficulties that arise with treatment (e.g. abuse, diversion, tolerance) lead some doctors to act as if something magical happens on the road from acute to chronic. The phenomenon is the exact opposite of the old saying, ‘to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.’ In this case, ‘to doctors who don’t want to use hammers, there ARE NO NAILS.’ But in truth, there ARE nails; some patients have lots of them. And we doctors have a duty to hammer away at them… (OK, enough with the analogy already!).
2. Just because some people divert opioids does not mean that other people shouldn’t have necessary pain relief. Treating pain is about as fundamental as medicine can be. I do not understand the doctors who say ‘I do not treat pain—you’ll have to see someone else’—especially when there are no doctors available to fill that role. More and more ‘health systems’ are adopting this position, at least in my area. What gives?!
3. At the same time, there is no such thing as ‘complete pain control.’ Tolerance removes the power of narcotics, and chasing tolerance always ends badly. Patients with chronic pain must use ALL tools available, including non-narcotic techniques.
4. Being prescribed pain medications comes with certain responsibilities; the responsibility to use the medications appropriately, to communicate openly and truthfully with the prescriber, to avoid ‘doctor-shopping,’ etc. At some point, patients who refuse to honor these responsibilities will lose access to pain medications—at least to some extent. Is this humane or fair? I think so, as access to pain relief for these patients is balanced against the lives of those killed by illicit use of these medications.
I’m sure I could go on… but for now, this is enough food for thought. Besides, it’s almost time for dinner! Feel free to comment—but please, be nice!
Prescription photo available from Shutterstock.