Pain Care Shouldn’t Be Political Theater

By Richard Oberg, MD, Guest Columnist

The current hysteria over opioid pain medication is, without a doubt, the most unbelievable and difficult situation for patients I've ever seen in my 30 years of practice. With an increasing number of deaths due to overdose, the message has become that opioid medication is the problem. 

Healthy people, including healthy physicians, don't seem to believe chronic pain really exists to the degree that it does. Add in media hysteria with gross misrepresentation of the facts, often-cited CDC propaganda, and you have a recipe for disaster: addiction models applied to chronic pain patients.

Everyone's favorite defense mechanism – projection -- is overused constantly and many healthy people really think if they had chronic pain they'd somehow handle it differently or “beat it” which is nonsense.

Empathy is not a learned skill, nor is it widely prevalent in the population, including the majority of physicians. You feel it every time you see that look of disbelief from anyone, including physicians, regarding your chronic painful illness. Skepticism overrides compassion.  This attitude in the current climate has led to a crisis for patients.

At age 39, before I was diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis and eventually late stage complications of spondylitis and neuropathy, I was a multi-mile runner and very active member of our large hospital staff. Then suddenly every step was like walking on broken glass, aching everywhere with flu-like symptoms, and getting maybe two hours of sleep per night.

I saw multiple colleagues who'd give me a pat on the back and tell me to “hang in there” as I was heading for a meltdown.  Instead of a rheumatologist, I was sent to a psychiatrist.  Even after I got a definitive diagnosis, everyone still just chose to ignore it.

Sound familiar?



I finally found an “old school” internist, one of the few in our area willing to treat chronic pain, who convinced me to try opioid medication cautiously, despite my reservations.  Like many people, I thought they'd make me fuzzy headed (bad for a diagnostic pathologist spending 8 hours under a microscope), but the opposite happened. Suddenly I was back at a tolerable pain level and able to sleep at night again. I’ll never forget how compassionate he was.

Biologic drugs such as Enbrel, which were new then, helped a lot for maybe 12 years. Over time they can become less effective for many patients. I became severely allergic to Remicade (anaphylactic reaction) and all other biologic/systemic medications also ceased to do anything, including Rituxan, which is for rheumatoid arthritis and B-cell lymphoma. I was desperate to continue working and was only able to with opioid medication.

Opioid Propaganda

So here's our dilemma as pain patients: we have a major federal agency (CDC) peddling “addictionologist” propaganda on a massive scale and investigative journalism no longer exists. The news media is no longer the fourth branch of government, but merely a vehicle for their propaganda.

Our physicians, despite being the highest paid in the world in the most expensive healthcare system in the world, have signed onto this -- not wanting any scrutiny whatsoever from state or federal regulators. They won't script in these “militarized” situations, and are either risk averse or co-dependent (the latter is why they want to drop the pain scale). Most are going along with the CDC because they don't want the extra trouble and have abandoned patient responsibility entirely, going for the low hanging fruit of more routine healthcare issues instead.

We have a supply and demand situation working against us with too few providers, an abundance of chronic pain patients, and pills that aren't as profitable as procedures. This varies from state to state and even within states, but is rapidly spreading. Physicians obviously caused part of the problem by over-prescribing, but they have the money and power, and are now just walking away from it all. There is a deafening silence from physicians, even when they know their patients are being abused.

In many states, like Tennessee where I live, physicians run everything. State officials passed tort reform, so lawyers won't take medical cases anymore (we tried and know firsthand).  Physicians own our state malpractice insurer, State Volunteer Mutual, which brags every year about malpractice premium refunds due to a decreased numbers of lawsuits. It's not because our state has a phenomenal group of physicians, it's just that the bar for a lawsuit is so high (like death of someone young) there are very few of them.

Within relatively few years (partly due to addictionologists like Dr. Andrew Kolodny having an outsized voice at the CDC) the conversation went from the “epidemic” of overdose deaths (which it never really was) to “opioids don't work for chronic pain” -- despite the fact that there are no good studies to support that because they really haven't been done.

They just say it and the news media repeats it, much like Dr. Sanjay Gupta, who stated on CNN’s “Prescription Addiction: Made in the USA” that overdoses were the #1 cause of preventable deaths in the Unites States. 

Sorry Sanjay, not even close. The CDC’s own statistics state that smoking and alcohol are the leading causes, with about 480,000 people dying every year – 25 times higher than the alleged 19,000 dying from prescription opioid medications.

How does this blatant propaganda get on CNN and what makes Sanjay Gupta an expert?

The ridiculous Consumer Reports cover story, The Dangers of Painkillers, also misused information supplied by the CDC. I've had a running email conversation with someone there for over a year asking why the bogus misuse of data - and got no answers of course.

Perhaps one of the most abominable statistical misuses by the CDC is confirmation bias, where they cherry pick data to “confirm” what they want to peddle, while ignoring other data, like the vast majority of pain patients doing well with opioid medication and most not having addiction issues.

Their argument simply doesn't work. In the 1990’s, the first decade of “massive” opioid prescribing that media outlets love to cite, there was no similar increase in complications caused by the number of “highly addictive” pills being prescribed. Then we had the 2008 financial meltdown, society changed, drug addiction became a prominent issue, and suddenly people were dying from too many pills.

Finally, the artificial breakdown of “cancer” pain vs. “non-cancer” pain is complete nonsense and always has been. The final common denominator of pain is pain, and cancer is merely one of many etiologies that can cause it.

Incidentally, the word “cancer” is pretty meaningless, especially to a pathologist like me. Large numbers of physicians and virtually all lay people have little understanding of the pathophysiologic processes pathologists are trained to understand.  Most things called “cancer” aren’t chronically painful and many autoimmune diseases can be much more painful than cancer.

Ironically, as cancer treatments have become better (such as those for breast cancer) and with longer survival times, many cancer patients are developing chronic pain conditions that have nothing to do with their cancer.

Do they get special treatment even if they have a good long-term prognosis?

Richard Oberg, MD, is disabled by psoriatic arthritis and no longer practices medicine. Dr. Oberg receives no funding from pharmaceutical manufacturers. 

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The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.