Nearly ever day there is a news article inciting panic and referring to the “opioid epidemic” and how people are dying from prescription pain medication in larger and larger numbers. This means that doctors are out of control in prescribing opioids, they need to stop now! Only people with cancer should get pain medication otherwise we’re all going to get addicted and die! People who are “in pain” are just druggies scamming the system!
The problem is, this isn’t actually true. Yes people are still dying from “opioids” (a generic term that also includes illegal heroin and Fentanyl), but deaths from pain pills are actually going down. Additionally, as anyone who was previously prescribed opioids for their chronic pain can tell you, prescriptions for pain medication have significantly decreased. So what else does the media get wrong about opioids for chronic pain?
Myth #1- If you need opioids to function you’re actually an addict
There is a significant difference between addiction and dependence. Addiction involves compulsive cravings, inability to control use, and use despite potential harm and self destructive behavior. Physical dependence occurs when the body becomes used to the presence of a drug. Many substances – such as sugar and anti-depressants can cause physical dependence, and yet people who use these substances are not accused of being addicts. Should we punish all the people on antidepressants by taking away their medication cold turkey and watch them suffer while we pat ourselves on the back and tell them it’s for their own good? I can’t speak for everyone, but I’m going to suggest that this would be cruel and bad for people’s health. Yet this is what’s happening to chronic pain patients and no one seems to care, even when these patients get so desperate they turn to suicide.
Myth #2- There are better alternatives than opioids to treat severe pain
The CDC has helpfully suggested that people in pain try taking acetaminophen (Tylenol) as if no one had ever thought of that before. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say since Tylenol isn’t even powerful enough to handle a headache it’s probably not going to help with chronic pain. Of course, that doesn’t mean I haven’t tried it in desperation. I’ve gone as high as 6 Tylenol at a time and not only is that not safe (Acetaminophen can cause liver damage), it didn’t even sort of work. Other suggestions put forth are:
- physical therapy- not covered by insurance
- weight loss – because you deserve to be in pain you fatty
- physiological therapies – not covered by insurance, and ARE YOU KIDDING ME?
- antidepressants – because people in pain are just need to to be happier
and so on…
Myth #3 – People only use painkillers to get high
My personal experience is that I have no idea why anyone would take opioids to get high because they make me feel terrible. Only complete desperation leads me to take pain medication. It makes me feel woozy and tired, but at the same time it prevents me from getting quality sleep. I hate the way it makes me feel, and it only takes a quick google search to see that I’m not alone.
People in pain don’t take opioids to get high, they take them so they can try to live as normal a life as possible. They take them so they can be a functioning parent, so they can be gainfully employed, so they can take care of their home, and so they can exercise like their doctor keeps pressuring them to (according to doctors it’s all mind over matter when it comes to being in too much pain to exercise).
Myth #4- It’s easy to find a doctor that will hand out opioids like candy
The current hysteria over the “opioid epidemic” has led to doctors being told and even threatened into not prescribing opioids no matter how legitimate the patient. Because of this prescriptions for opioids are rapidly falling and the majority of “opioid deaths” are now caused by illegal Fentanyl. It turns out that when doctors cut access to opioids pain patients are out of luck, and addicts turn to illegal drugs.
I am constantly mystified that very few people care about what is happening to chronic pain patients in this country. How many people have to be forced into a life of crippling pain and the poverty that comes with it? How many people have to kill themselves to get the nation’s attention? Pain patients have been left alone both in their fight and their pain, and we as a country should be ashamed.