In my last post, The Opioid Epidemic: How Did We Get Here?, I outlined the many factors that contributed to the current state of affairs in this country in regards to opioid use. But now that we’ve established we’ve got a problem on our hands, what exactly do we do about it?
We need to stop placing blame. This is the least constructive thing I’ve witnessed so far when it comes to addressing the current crisis. It is not one person’s fault. Heck, it’s not even one group’s fault. The second we start acting like it is, we lose all sense of personal responsibility. And it’s hard to right what’s wrong if no one will take ownership. So, for the sake of this exercise, let’s just assume it’s everyone’s fault and get on with it.
We need to remember that we’re on the same team. Lately, it seems like the healthcare setting might as well be a season of Survivor. Doctors vs Patients: Who Will Prevail? Doctors feel rushed, taken for granted, and sometimes taken advantage of. And patients feel like they’re not being heard and their needs aren’t being addressed. But it’s important to remember that we both want the same things when it comes to chronic pain: to reduce pain and to increase function. Patients with pain want to feel better and doctors want to help them feel better. Honestly. But we may have different ideas about how to achieve that, so it’s more important now than ever that we are open about our concerns, our expectations, and the plan going forward. (If X doesn’t work, then we’ll try Y.)
If doctors are resistant to prescribing pain medications, it’s not because we want to maintain some sort of control or power over the situation. It’s the easiest thing in the world to write a prescription, and to feel like a hero for it, but that’s not doctoring. Doctoring is talking to your patient, listening to their complaints, and deciding on a treatment plan that has the best chance of helping them without harming them. When we are faced with data that shows no long-term benefit to opioid medications, and then we see the potential harm they can cause, we do not take the decision to prescribe these medications lightly. That is not to say that I will never, ever prescribe opioids ever again. But each and every time I do, I think long and hard about it. And I hope my patients can appreciate that about me, because it’s unlikely to change.
We need to understand the purpose of pain. Pain results when a neurologic signal is sent from a certain body area to the brain to alert us that something is wrong. It lets us know to jerk our hand away from a hot stove or to seek medical attention after an injury. In a perfect world, anything that generated pain would be fixable. Unfortunately, that is often not the case. Patients sometimes have pain from an identifiable problem that can’t be fixed. Patients may also have pain whose origin cannot be detected using our current diagnostic tools. In those cases, it is important to understand that we can rule out the potentially life-threatening causes of pain by taking a good history, doing a good physical exam, and ordering the appropriate blood work and imaging studies based on our patient’s complaints. After that, we are often left with pain and other symptoms that can be managed, but not fixed.
Once we have established we are dealing with a condition that causes pain but does not have other damaging effects on the body, our goal is then to reduce the pain—or, more accurately, reduce the perception of pain. Pain causes an increase in certain neurotransmitters in the brain. Just like depression, managing it is often an issue of modulating the neurotransmitters to alter the experience of pain. Actually, a few antidepressants have been found to be effective in the management of certain chronic pain conditions for this very reason.
A long time ago, someone asked me a question I didn’t have a great answer for: If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? In that same vein, I ask you: If a pain signal is generated but the brain doesn’t perceive it, does the pain really exist? I would argue that there is one answer to satisfy both of these brain teasers: It doesn’t really matter! It shouldn’t matter if I’m taking an antidepressant instead of a narcotic. If I don’t feel pain (or even if I feel less pain) and there’s nothing life-threatening going on in my body, I’m happy. End of story.
We need to be open to other options. Contrary to popular belief, opioids are not the be-all and end-all for pain unless they’re being used strictly for palliation (i.e. focusing on pain management without concern for regaining function, usually for patients that are nearing the end-of-life). It’s easy on a physician’s part to write the prescription, and it’s easy on the patient’s part to take it, but opioids don’t do anything about the underlying reason for a patient’s pain. They don’t improve patients’ ability to function, and they can actually lead to an increased sensitivity to pain. As I like to tell my patients, opioids are a sledgehammer when what you need is a chisel: they’ll get the job done, but it ain’t gonna be pretty.
Happily, there are many other options available to us for the treatment of pain. There are non-pharmacologic treatments such as physical therapy, yoga, massage therapy, meditation, and multiple other modalities. On the medication front, we have anti-inflammatory medications, anticonvulsants, antidepressants, muscle relaxers, topical medications, and anti-anxiety medications. There is also the option of regional analgesia, which includes a variety of procedures that can be performed to focus in on a specific painful area. Depending on the type of pain a patient is having, one or more of the above options is likely to be more beneficial than opioids and will almost certainly result in improved function and lifestyle.
A major hurdle we face is that some (not all) of these treatments take time to be effective. The obvious benefit of opioid medications (i.e. I take my pill and I feel better in about thirty minutes) is hard to overlook in favor of a treatment that may take weeks to become effective. However, they have the potential of benefitting our patients long-term, as opposed to opioids, which have not been shown to be beneficial in the treatment of chronic pain. But if we can convince patients to invest in themselves, in their long-term well-being rather than a short-term improvement in symptoms, then we may help them avoid a lifetime of opioid dependence, depression, and chronic misery.
We need to stop viewing ourselves as the outliers. The sooner we accept that we are all subject to the same rules, the better off we’ll be. If we don’t, we stand to lose even more autonomy when it comes to pain management. I’m speaking to physicians and patients, here. Most of us wear a seatbelt when we drive, even though we don’t expect to get in a car accident. We do it because 1) it has the potential to be helpful and 2) there could be consequences if we don’t. It is not advisable to throw caution to the wind, say “it’s not going to be me today,” and leave the seatbelt in its casing. Seatbelts work because the majority of people use them the majority of the time. Once people start feeling like the rules don’t apply to them, the system breaks down. What you really don’t want is for doctors to be deciding who looks like they could be a drug addict, and treating those people differently than their other patients. No, we need a standardized system and we need physicians and patients to agree to play by the rules.
The fact remains, the United States comprises 4.4% of the world’s population, but consumes 80% of the world’s opioids. The problem in this country is not pain. Other populations struggle with chronic pain, they undergo surgeries, and they suffer from terminal illnesses just like we do. The problem is much deeper. It’s cultural, it’s engrained, and it’s not going to be fixed overnight. We are all part of the American culture, even if we’ve never taken a pain pill, and we cannot be isolated from our environment as different from everyone else.
Recent surveys have suggested anywhere from 11-15% of the United States population suffers from chronic pain, defined as pain lasting at least 3 months. That’s about 45 million people. Let’s say for the sake or argument that doctors only prescribe opioids for about 10% of those people, and only 1% of those develop an addiction or experience a fatal overdose. Those numbers seem pretty small, right? That’s 45,000 people whose lives have been ruined by injudicious use of opioid pain medication. It’s easy to say “it won’t be me,” but as physicians we have to remember that it will be someone. We treat enough people that the numbers say we will likely harm someone by prescribing opioids. That is why we can seem so unnecessarily cautious. That is why we weigh the options so carefully. That is why we have pain contracts and rules. If your doctor is cautious about prescribing opioids, it usually means they care.
We need to accept that the problem won’t be fixed overnight. It took twenty-plus years to get to this point, and there is no quick fix. It will be tedious, painful, and slow. But if we—doctors and our patients—don’t use this opportunity to shift the pendulum, it will be shifted for us in a much less desirable way.
There will be hoops, so many hoops, to jump through in order to prescribe opioids when we think they are necessary. Someone outside of the medical profession may have to approve each prescription—much like the prior authorization that is necessary for certain medications and diagnostic studies now. There may be regulations about how many of these medications drug companies can produce, therefore driving up the cost for patients.
I really don’t want it to get to that. I don’t think anyone does.