Before addressing the issues of this article, I will need to explain the position from which I write. At the present time I am a 76-year old, semi-retired sociologist and former nurse. As a sociologist, it was natural for me to include the sociology of medicine as one of my major interests. As a nurse, I worked for three years in the county jail nurse’s office, several years in the emergency room, and for six years as a hospital corpsman in the navy reserve.
I was introduced to the whole drug scene while working in the jail, where it was my job to treat substance abusers who were addicted to paint, glue, alcohol, and various drugs. This was in the very early ‘80s, and the majority of the street drugs were amphetamines, Quaaludes, heroin, and marijuana. It was necessary to control withdrawal symptoms from the time the inmates were booked, to keep them alive long enough to go to court, serve whatever time they were given, and be released back into the same environment with virtually no change in their lives except those imposed on felons. The recidivism rate was extremely high—more so than for any other offense. During the time I worked there, the fastest turn-around rate for a released prisoner being picked up drunk and brought back in to Booking was 30 minutes.
Of course, in the ER and even in the Navy reserve I saw evidence of substance abuse. As a corpsman I was also involved with both diagnosis and treatment. The most heartbreaking experiences, however, occurred while I was working at a private college in Appalachia from 1997-2013. I saw firsthand the growth of the OxyContin and heroin epidemic that Sam Quinones documents in Dreamland, followed by Meth and various other prescription drugs, soon followed by the amoral pill mills that so delighted students who were already dependent or in early stages of addiction. At their age, they were the most vulnerable to the brain disorder of addiction, and the main targets of the dealers who would actually supply their first pills free, to encourage a new customer. I saw so many beautiful, bright students succumb to the promise of a pill that would make their life better, more fun, or at least easier. I was able to help some, but not all, by far. They needed experienced and trained medical attention, and I was no longer in that field. I came to despise the very thought of drugs, dealers, and pill mill “doctors”.
But there is another side to my story. In 1968 I suffered the first experience of a bulging spinal disc. Within 3 years I was diagnosed with degenerative disc disease, and with osteoarthritis of the spine, hands, feet, shoulders and hips. By 2013, there was no part of my spine that was not affected; I had major stenosis at various levels, bone spurs, episodes of bulging and decayed discs, a vertebra that had decayed discs on both sides and was standing on edge, resulting in a spinal S-curve from my waist to the upper thoracic region. Unrelenting pain caused muscle spasms in my entire back and neck, adding to the pain. A meningioma would soon be discovered attached to my spinal cord at T3-4; it is benign—the only worry being that it will grow.
During those 45 years living with pain, I never had any medication stronger than NSAIDS. Like many patients, I could not tolerate narcotics or opioids. I had to learn meditation and “mind control” (pushing the awareness of pain to another part of my consciousness). I had a great deal of physical therapy. I played the piano and organ for distraction, until I could not. I walked from 1-3 miles every day, and I worked full time as a nurse, then as a college professor, usually working between 40-60 hours a week. I spent seven years in South Africa in the middle of a revolution. The more I could distract myself with external demands, the longer I could function. Again, until I could not.
In 2014, so disabled by pain I could neither work nor sufficiently care for myself, I was sent to a pain management specialist in Louisville, KY. After I was finally convinced that he was a legitimate pain specialist who would not try to get me addicted, we were able to work together very well. I learned to trust his judgement, and to follow his lead in determining my treatment. As a result, I have been able to teach at a local university part time for the last two years, and it has been a year since I have had pain greater than 5 on the 0-10 scale. One of the reasons that the pain has not been greater, and has not persisted, is that when it gets to that point I take hydrocodone, at its very lowest dose. My pain doctor realized that I am able to tolerate very low doses of medications for other problems (many of which were caused or exacerbated by long-term use of NSAIDS), so we tried the opiate. The complete pain relief has been astounding to me. I have never before had medication do more than take the edge off the pain. Equally important, my need for the opiate is becoming less and less frequent. My chronic anxiety levels have dropped considerably, and that also is a source of pain relief.
Which brings me, finally, to the point of this article. I hope I have sufficiently established the experience and credentials that give me the foundation for writing it. I must write it, because for too long I have been reading articles by people who have based their judgement about the dangers and/or efficacy of opiate treatment for pain on short-term, inadequate research. In A World of Hurt, by Barry Meier, he quotes Dr. Jayne Ballantyne as saying that her studies, and those of others, show that after a short term of therapy, there is little to no efficacy (5% of patients) of opiates for pain. I have seen and heard these figures often; yet pain management physicians also have records of people who have been carefully managed on opiates and other pain relieving measures for at least twenty years, who are functioning without severe pain. None of these studies satisfy me that they meet the natural science or sociological requirements of longitudinal studies. The former studies fall far short of twenty years, and the latter are a matter of record but no sufficiently rigorous scientific research has been done to establish credibility.
Additionally, our understanding of the prevalence and range of chronic pain issues, and the new brain studies that have completely revised our knowledge of addiction, have rendered those studies irrelevant. But the continued widespread references to them has created a situation that is clearly morally and ethically bankrupt: Patients with persistent, severe pain—including, in many states, terminal cancer patients—are being deliberately, systematically deprived of relief and therefore from the ability to lead potentially productive lives, or at least to spend their final days in peace, without pain. This, while other substances that are addictive are legal and can be consumed by any adult, regardless of their risk factors for addiction, whether or not there is a “need” for the substance.
What would make opiate efficacy studies reliable and verifiable? First, to acknowledge that all pain patients are unique in their tolerance to pain, their response to pain, and their response to treatment. Not everyone can metabolize medications the same way. Not everyone responds equally to physical therapy, or to psychological counselling. Not everyone has the personality to effectively meditate, or to suppress awareness of moderate pain. But all of these treatments, as well as known risk factors, are variables that must be accounted for if you are judging the efficacy of pain treatment.
Then there is the issue of the selection of participants. When I read the studies done in past years, I found they were limited to a single practice, or a hospital, or other small group of patients with no concern for variables like age, risk factors, history of abuse, previous treatment and other illnesses. The participants were not chosen scientifically in order to be representative, so results are inevitably skewed. I am reminded of early anthropological ethnographic studies where small, isolated villages were researched, then the results extrapolated to all such groups: “from the particular to the general”. We now realize that you can’t do this and arrive at accurate conclusions. Yet, on the basis of these flawed opiate efficacy studies, people’s lives are being damaged, their families are suffering needlessly, and many patients who are cut off from their medication either take to street drugs with the risk of overdose, or just commit suicide in the first place.
We do need more research about the safety and efficacy of drugs. But it must be longitudinal and scientifically designed and the results assessed to be reliable and verifiable. We also need politicians to stop enacting laws and policies based on moral definitions of issues, which we can never come to consensus about, and work on the actual economic and environmental issues that they can actually improve.
Addiction is a disease, not a moral issue. Pain is a disease, not a moral issue. And we are not speaking of just a few people affected by the neglect resulting from ill-informed laws and regulations designed more to punish the innocent along with the guilty rather than to end the War on Drugs. We speak of hundreds of thousands, even millions of sufferers. When properly identified as scientific (medical) problems instead of moral issues, we can see the potential to improve conditions. People could be adding to the economy, rather than being forced to either live off of it, or to live in poverty while their pain continues to worsen.
Big Pharma—for example, Purdue Pharma– are far from innocent in this War. Additionally, the FDA is no longer as concerned with protecting potential patients as they are in protecting corporate rights to profit; witness the countless lawsuits for drugs improperly researched, improperly advertised, and improperly presented to physicians who must rely on that information in order to prescribe successfully. And the DEA is still, regardless of evidence that they are often destroying the lives of the innocent while failing to halt the spread of illegal drugs, using pain patients and their physicians as cannon fodder in their failed war on drugs.
A significant paradigm shift is required here. Educationally, culturally, legally and morally we must illuminate the darkness of our willful ignorance about the suffering of the innocent who have become scapegoats in the failed War on Drugs due to tunnel vision about the relationships between drugs, physicians, and pain; a tunnel vision that cannot see the greed and political will that perpetuates the drug problem. Every institution of our society has failed our physicians and their patients who are in pain, or addicted. Those institutions have either failed to adjust a false worldview that blames patients for their illnesses, or have just failed to assume responsibility for their role in finding solutions to the need for a collaborative approach to these widespread diseases, and to the devastation that has resulted from long term beliefs that they are moral issues that must be punished.
For over a century, that approach has not worked. And as the saying goes, insanity is defined as continuing to do the same thing over and over again (or doing even more of it), expecting different results. From family, to education, to religion, culture, economics and government we need a major overhaul of outdated and inaccurate beliefs, and development of procedures that decriminalize the treatment of chronic pain and addiction, as well as the afflictions themselves. Medical decisions need to be made by medical experts and their appropriate medical agencies, and the Criminal Justice system could concentrate on ridding our nation of illegal drugs by putting the same time and effort into stopping the dealers who daily increase the supply of drugs available on our streets. We might even look to the successes of other countries, and determine if their methods are importable.
I cannot bear the thought of more bright and beautiful college students ruining or ending their lives before they have even begun. The data suggests that it is not stopping with college students, but that high school and even middle school students are being targeted as “customers” of the illegal drug trade. I also cannot live with the knowledge that caring and dedicated physicians, who have spent nearly half of an average 70 year lifetime studying and working for the privilege of becoming practicing physicians, have lost everything they have worked for because they have tried to help their patients. (I am quite ok with pill mill “doctors” being brought to justice for their crimes, however!)
It is Christmas Eve as I write this. A time of hope, a time of expectation that the promises of life can be fulfilled. I am a sociologist because I believe in the amazing capability of human beings to solve the problems of life, separately and together. I am also all too well aware of our capability to create and maintain cultural and social institutions and structures that protect certain groups of humans at the expense of huge numbers of their fellow humans. I believe that most of us are better than this; that we can do better, and that bit by bit we can learn to adapt to change, to each other, and to the requirements of living in our world safely, together.
Please—let’s make 2017 the year we begin to deal with chronic pain and addiction as the disease processes they are, and begin to structure our corporate life accordingly, so that together we can end the war on drugs, and on patients and their physicians, and restore the rationality of the Enlightenment without killing the compassion of empathy.
RESOURCES: Books & Peer Reviewed Articles
Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. 2012. The New Press, NY
Bateman, Dustin. Neurological & Sociological Aspects of Addiction.
Bertram, Eva and Morrris Blachman. Drug War Politics: The Price of Denial. 1996. University of California Press.
Levinthal, Charles F. Messengers of Paradise. Opiates and the Brain. The Struggle Over Pain, Rage, Uncertainty and Addiction.
Meier, Barry. A World of Hurt: Fixing Pain Medicine’s Biggest Mistake. 2013. New York Times Company.
Parsons, Talcott. “Illness and the Role of the Physician: A Sociological Perspective.” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 24 March 2010. Copyright © 2010, John Wiley and Sons.
Quinones, Sam. Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic. 2015. Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
Sternheimer, Karen. Connecting Social Problems and Popular Culture: Why Media is not the Answer. 2nd Ed. 2013. Westview Press, Perseus Books Group.
Webster, Lynn R. The Painful Truth: What Chronic Pain is Really Like and Why it Matters to Each of Us. 2015 Webster Media, LLC.
Hyperlinks to articles on Web:
Addiction is a Brain Disease http://www.attcnetwork.org/explore/priorityareas/science/disease/
Pain Medicine News – How Did We Get Here? http://www.painmedicinenews.com/ViewArticle.aspx?d=Guest%2BEditorial&d_id=351&i=March+2014&i_id=1042&a_id=26043&tab=MostEmailed#.U3PLVV6vdyI.twitter
New Pain Management Rules Leave Patients Hurting http://seattletimes.com/html/localnews/2016035307_pain28m.html#.U2mA77bwJzQ.twitter
Chronic Undertreated pain affects 116 million Americans: http://healthland.time.com/2011/06/29/report-chronic-undertreated-pain-affects-116-million-americans/
Our Fear of Opioids Leaves the world in Pain http://edsinfo.wordpress.com/2014/10/27/our-fear-of-opioids-leaves-the-world-in-pain/
MT @toni_bernhard: My new piece. It should be of interest to anyone whose illness is questioned: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/turning-straw-gold/201410/i-m-sick-what-is-wrong-me …Dr. Paul Christo @DrPaulChristo · Oct 27
Physician Suicide http://t.co/4vhF63eD6N
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The damage done by the war on opioids: the pendulum has swung too far http://www.dovepress.com/articles.php?article_id=16781 …
Trial Verdict: Dr. Baldi Not Guilty on All Charges http://whotv.com/2014/05/01/baldi-trial-not-guilty-on-all-charges/
What are Patients to do when Law Enforcement Closes Clinics? http://missoulian.com/news/state-and-regional/ravalli-county-health-officer-says-patients-of-raided-florence-clinic/article_cf2e1690-bac0-11e3-848e-001a4bcf887a.html
Killing Pain in Perry county http://www.kentucky.com/2009/12/12/1056711/killing-pain-in-perry-co.html
Patient role in helping physicians
“Unless patients wake up and fight for the providers of care, we are headed for the sickest system in the world.” http://www.kevinmd.com/blog/2014/03/dissatisfied-doctors-provide-good-patient-care.html …
From James P. Murphy, MD, MMM;
Practicing Pain Management Physician
Board Certified in Pain Management & Addiction Management