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REFLECTIONS ON THE EFFICACY OF OPIOID PAIN RELIEF OVER TIME

pain photoBefore 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.

enlifghtened being

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 

Report: Chronic, Undertreated Pain Affects 116 Million Americans http://ti.me/AAfT7q  via @TIMEHealth

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

California Doctor….   http://paindr.com/california-doctor-unveils-painful-abyss-facing-patients-in-pain/

Physician Suicide http://t.co/4vhF63eD6N

References from this article:

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  6. Middleton JL. Today I’m grieving a physician suicide. Ann Fam Med. May-Jun 2008;6(3):267-9. [Medline].
  7. Noonan D. Doctors who kill themselves. Newsweek. Apr 28 2008;151(17):16. [Medline].
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  14. Myers M. Doctors’ Marriages: A Look at the Problems and Their Solutions. 2nd ed. New York: Springer; 1994.
  15. Charles SC, Frisch PR. Adverse Events, Stress, and Litigation: A Physician’s Guide. New York: Oxford University Press; 2005.
  16. Balch CM, Oreskovich MR, Dyrbye LN, et al. Personal consequences of malpractice lawsuits on American surgeons. J Am Coll Surg. Nov 2011;213(5):657-67. [Medline].
  17. Sessions S. Dr. Ticktin and the Expert Witness Industry. 2005;[Full Text].
  18. Myers M, Gabbard G. The Physician as Patient: A Clinical Handbook for Mental Health Professionals. American Psychiatric Publishing; 2008.
  19. Lehmann C. Aggressive Intervention Urged for Depression in Physicians. Psychiatric News. November 17, 2000.
  20. Miles SH. A piece of my mind. A challenge to licensing boards: the stigma of mental illness. JAMA. Sep 9 1998;280(10):865. [Medline].
  21. Hendin H, Maltsberger JT, Haas AP. A physician’s suicide. Am J Psychiatry. Dec 2003;160(12):2094-7. [Medline].
  22. Hendin H, Reynolds C, Fox D, et al. Licensing and Physician Mental Health: Problems and Possibilities. Journal of Medical Licensure and Discipline. 2007;93:6-11.
  23. Schwenk TL, Gorenflo DW, Leja LM. A survey on the impact of being depressed on the professional status and mental health care of physicians. J Clin Psychiatry. Apr 2008;69(4):617-20. [Medline].
  24. Polfliet SR. A National Analysis of Medical Licensure Applications. J Am Acad Psychiatry Law. 2008;36:369-74. [Full Text].
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  27. Andrew LB. Survey Says: Many EPs Suffer in Silence. Emergency Physicians Monthly Online [serial online]. March 2006;13:3:1-7. Available at http://www.epmonthly.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=226&Itemid=15.
  28. Shaw DL, Wedding D, Zeldow PB. Suicide among medical students and physicians, special problems of medical students. In: Wedding D, ed. Behavior and Medicine. 3rd ed. Hogrefe and Huber: 2001:78-9 (chap 6).
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Physician Risks

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 …

 

dr-murphyFrom James P. Murphy, MD, MMM;

Practicing Pain Management Physician

Board Certified in Pain Management & Addiction Management

https://jamespmurphymd.com/2014/04/25/the-dream-of-pain-care-enough-to-cope-the-seventeenth-r-dietz-wolfe-memorial-lecture/

https://jamespmurphymd.com/2016/07/24/comparing-apples-to-apples-the-morphine-equivalent-daily-dose/

https://jamespmurphymd.com/2016/06/21/prescribing-controlled-substances-in-kentucky-cme-presentation-for-flaget-memorial-hospital-in-bardstown-ky-june-21-2016/

https://jamespmurphymd.com/2015/02/13/pathway-to-partnership/

https://jamespmurphymd.com/2015/09/a-stellar-time-at-bellarmine

 


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“ALTERNATIVE” VS. “SUPPLEMENTAL” PAIN CARE

The latest heresy propagated by the misguided War on Drugs, particularly the version that is an opiophobic war against pain patients and their physicians, is that engendered by both pop and professional psychology. In short, it is the claim that to control one’s own pain by controlling thought processes is a better alternative than pain medication for chronic pain. Thus, mental self-control is added to physical therapy, diet, and exercise, as purveyors of these so-called better methods hope to gain the income they saw going to legitimate, board certified pain management physicians who actually provide relief from pain. The heresy is that theirs is an alternative therapy, when in fact for far too many chronic pain patients it is at best a supplement to actual pain relief by medical methods.

Before addressing this heresy, allow me to outline my credentials for debunking it. For 46 years I have suffered from degenerative disc disease. At the present time, there is no part of my spine unaffected by this process, no part that fails to add to the pain. At four different places in my back and neck, there are outgrowths (stenosis, protruding disc material, arthritis and one spinal meningioma) intruding on the spinal cord itself, with resulting radicular pain, weakness in extremities, and the potential for paralysis. In addition, 14 years ago I was diagnosed with Type II Diabetes, with severe diabetic neuropathy. Walking produces paradoxical pain and numbness, often resulting in missteps and falling if I do not actually see where my feet are.

Because I have always been unable to take pain medications (as well as many other medications), early on I accepted the responsibility for dealing with my pain pretty much on my own. To the extent possible, I considered it a “mind over matter” situation and learned to compartmentalize the pain while I worked full time all those years, was divorced and learned to support myself, gained first a nursing certification and then a Ph.D.  While these “alternatives” to pain medication made life possible up to a point, it remained very difficult and the control was as often geared toward forcing myself to keep going as it was to training my mind away from the pain.

I held positions that were demanding and stressful, often working 60-70 hours a week and rarely getting more than 3-4 hours sleep because of the pain. As both a nurse and a professional social scientist, I was knowledgeable about the supplemental psychological and physical methods I was using. But no matter how well I used distraction, being useful, loving my job, and being positive; no matter how I accepted my pain as simply another part of my life and tried to minimize its presence in my thoughts and mind, it continued taking its toll on my body and my life. THESE SUPPLEMENTAL METHODS OF PAIN CONTROL WERE INSUFFICIENT, NEITHER REMOVING MY PAIN NOR REDUCING ITS EFFECTS ON MY BODY.

Three years ago, all the defects in my efforts to control chronic pain came to a devastating but inevitable concluding failure. The discs on either side of a lower thoracic vertebra “imploded”—displacing the vertebra, and creating scoliosis from that point upward in my spine. The pain, added to what I already suffered, was too excruciating for me to fight. Additionally, other disease processes were becoming worse from the long-term stress: my diabetes was out of control, I had cardiac problems, allergies, and severe gastric issues. I retired from full time work at the age of 72, and moved to a city where I hoped to find good medical care and a church family where I would feel at home. I did not think it would be for long, and often my pain was so exquisite, so unrelenting, that I prayed for the relief of death.

That, in summary, is the story of my life without pain medication. It was a long nightmare of having to give over so much of my personal energy to keeping pain levels manageable that I had nothing left for the responsibilities of any kind of family or personal life. Pain was the constant companion of my days and nights for so many years that I had forgotten many of the pleasures of a life free of pain. Don’t get me wrong—I am not looking for the reader’s sympathy. I am simply stating facts, not just for myself, but also for the millions of chronic pain sufferers in the USA who also live with untreated or undertreated chronic pain because of unjust and unreasonable regulations about what kind of treatment and how much of it they are allowed. Regulations too often created by people without the credentials or experience to understand the “unintended consequences” of their need to control a situation that has nothing to do with legitimate pain care, and everything to do with a dysfunctional understanding of addiction.

There is obviously more to my story, and that is because my selection of this city proved to be an excellent choice. Here, I was referred to a pain management physician with the skill, compassion and integrity to not only medically provide periods of full relief from my pain, but also to help me find a pain medication that I am able to tolerate. I now know with certainty, for the first time in my life, that the so-called “alternatives” to pain medication do not qualify for the term “alternative.” They simply are NOT EQUAL to the task of relieving severe, chronic, disabling pain that takes its toll on both mind and body. They can be excellent supplemental methods for maintenance of the effects of tolerable levels of pain (which differs in EACH AND EVERY patient, as do the effects of all forms of pain management) but they are no match for the pain suffered by those of us whose lives of debilitating chronic pain are defined by pain management or the lack thereof.


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WAR ON PHYSICIANS AND PATIENTS, CHAPTER 2

I wanted to believe that the State of Indiana, my new home, was a place where wise, knowledgeable heads prevailed; a place where lawmakers did not succumb to the pressures of being politically correct while morally wrong when lives were at stake. I have even twice used this blog space to compliment them on setting up a law regarding the prescribing of opioids that clearly recognized the difference between regulations and felonies, while protecting both patients and physicians.

I was wrong. The failed war on drugs has affected the State of Indiana as it has so many others, and opioid hysteria is prevailing over perspective in government circles. The law scheduled to become effective on December 31, 2014 will include limits on every form of opioid pain relief for chronic pain patients that are so restrictive as to completely ignore the uniqueness of every patient. Pain patients differ in their perspective of pain, in their experience of pain, their tolerance for pain, and their response to ANY treatment for pain—including opioids.

The treatment of chronic pain is not amenable to cookie-cutter protocols. Nor does it fit nicely into the “15 minute per patient” rule imposed as a necessity to satisfy insurance company/corporate bureaucracy requirements. It takes time, patience and extensive knowledge to successfully treat a patient with chronic pain and disability, to try to bring that patient back to some form of productive life. When this is not possible because of the extent of the disability, then the goal must be adjusted to simply making life bearable for the patient.

Indiana lawmakers once understood these facts. Now they seem to have abandoned reality and chosen to break their own law even before it takes effect. The law demands that physicians spend an almost impossible amount of time and effort being face to face with each patient before prescribing for them – yet lawmakers who never set eyes on these patients and who collectively have no medical license or even relevant training are prescribing what an allowable course of treatment can be for any pain patient. ANY pain patient, regardless of the cause of their pain, the disability it may cause, and the length of time the patient has suffered. Regardless of their tolerance for the treatment. Regardless of their response to treatment.

A physician notes:

“Regulatory overreach has a chilling effect by making prescribers fearful of jeopardizing their licenses.  This fear can result in physicians abandoning pain sufferers, even forcing some patients to seek black market medications or illicit drugs.  Such has been the unfortunate case in states that hastily passed burdensome pain regulations.  Heroin use in these states has increased dramatically as the supply of prescription pain medications has dwindled.” http://jamespmurphymd.com/2013/10/07/an-open-letter-to-the-medical-licensing-board-of-indiana/comment-page-1/#comment-1158

Just last week WHAS News (Louisville KY) reported that since the Kentucky Pain Law of 2012, Heroin overdoses rose from 3% to 40%. Heroin overdose EMS calls have risen a stunning 700%. All this, despite the fact that heroin trafficking arrests have risen 1300%. These statistics were attributed to the “unintended consequences” of the unrealistic, overly burdensome pain regulations.

Unintended consequences. Beautiful, bright college students found dead of heroin overdose. Physicians wrongly charged with felony prescribing, found dead by their own hands. Countless patients, deprived of their medications (many without even the option of being slowly weaned off of them) turning to suicide in their pain, or alternatively, to the criminal activity of street drugs.

And all we can say is “Oops! We did not intend for this to happen.” ???? Wake up, Indiana! Don’t willfully head down this same slippery slope!

The War on Drugs has failed. The War on Physicians and Patients is close to taking more lives than the Iraq war, and ruining just as many others. Simply passing harsher and more impossible laws is NOT going to help anyone. There is a better way.

Education is the better way. We have First Aid Certification, CPR, Lifeguard training and certification – so many lifesaving training programs for the general public as well as medical personnel. We need to add Basic training programs for the public on how to deal with drugs. We need Continuing Education programs for physicians and medical personnel on how to deal with opioids. Early education and continuing education can prevent deaths and disability from drug abuse, and help physicians to prescribe knowledgably. Alliances between physicians and pharmacists in drug management programs would make a huge difference in keeping legitimate patients and their caregivers safe.

Stay on the high road. Political power should be about making Americans safe, and so far the Wars on Drugs, Physicians and Patients have failed miserably in that regard. Please do not wait until that college student dead of heroin overdose is your child, or grandchild. Fight this battle WITH the physicians, not against them.


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Drs. Pohl and Kolodny, I Have Questions About Addiction, Dependency, and Drug Abuse

USA Today recently published an article about seniors and prescription drugs, with input from Dr. Mel Pohl and Dr. Andrew Kolodny to support the claims made in their opinion piece. (See: Seniors and Prescription Drugs: As Misuse Rises, So Does the Toll http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/05/20/seniors-addiction-prescription-drugs-painkillers/9277489/ ) Having read the article, I am left with several unanswered questions. I am herein addressing them to you, Dr. Pohl and Dr. Kolodny.

 In the video, the statement is made “We didn’t know what addiction was” but you never define addiction – nor for that matter, do you ever acknowledge how addiction differs from dependency, or even from drug abuse.  Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. The disease of addiction is a chronic condition that, without treatment, is progressive and can result in lifelong disability or death. The evidence from recent research on this is growing daily, and so is the evidence that treating chronic pain patients based on this information is increasing the success rates—success rates that you also fail to acknowledge.

Drug dependency, on the other hand, is reversible. Anyone can expect to become physically dependent on a drug they take for a long time; including, for example, diabetic medication, anti-anxiety drugs, sleeping pills, nasal sprays, beta blockers and other cardiac drugs, and many OTC drugs that are NOT prescription medications.  Withdrawal from dependency can be severe, but when it is over it is over. In contrast, the disease of addiction is a chronic condition that, without treatment, is progressive and can result in lifelong disability or death. 

Drug abuse describes behavior born of bad decision-making; not the disease of addiction. Almost all addicts have been physically dependent on drugs, but vastly fewer people who find themselves “physically dependent” on drugs (i.e. pain patients) are addicts.  When assessing your data on seniors who survived their youthful drug excesses in the 60’s, for example, did you consider this?

Also, did you consider that these same seniors know how to obtain street drugs and will do so if the option of pain control is removed?  Are you willing to share the responsibility of leaving your patients no choice but to engage in criminal behavior? Are you unable to acknowledge the reality that there are expert and courageous physicians who are willing to engage in the time-consuming (and, in the media fabricated maelstrom of opioid hysteria, even dangerous) battle for suffering patients against chronic pain? Will you ever acknowledge their successes?  Why do you bombastically lump all these conditions under the most alarming category of addiction?

Thoughtful physicians are taught to begin with the lowest dose, monitor their patients, and increase the dosage only as objective and subjective findings justify the increase. Why then, Doctor Kolodny, have you begun your treatment of this issue at the highest possible dosage of inflammatory rhetoric? Don’t you understand that each patient differs in their perception of pain, in their tolerance for pain, and in their response to medication and treatment?

And finally, you object to prescription opioid pain treatment but support the use of Tylenol (i.e. Acetaminophen) in patients with severe chronic pain.  Have you read the research on what acetaminophen does to the human liver? Doctor, have YOU ever experienced severe chronic pain with only acetaminophen for treatment?

The flaws and gaps in your ivory tower presentation are glaringly obvious.  You have failed to convince me that the best prevention for addiction is to never prescribe these drugs.  In some pain-free utopia that approach might work.  But we live, suffer, and die in the real world. Neither you, nor I, nor anyone will ever establish heaven on earth by banning pain drugs.

Why not treat this problem like you are supposed to treat pain. Let’s start with a remedy that has the greatest potential for benefit with the least amount of risk: 

Let’s educate ourselves about the proper use of these medications, the best treatments for pain, and the value of lifestyle optimization.

Perhaps my suggestion also sounds like a utopian prescription.  I am not naïve enough to believe you can eradicate abuse and addiction merely by educating the populous.  But it’s a better primary treatment for our drug problem than surgically removing all access to opioid pain care.  And 116 million chronic pain patients would not have to choose whether to suffer or become criminals.

Note:  I have shamelessly borrowed from the published research on this subject.  The information is out there. 

Chronic Pain Management with Opioids in Patients with Past or Current Substance Abuse Problems. Journal of Pharmacy Practice. 2003, 16;4:291-308.