The Importance of Treating Chronic Pain

By Emily Ulrich, Columnist

If you are a chronic pain sufferer, by now you may have read about the proposed opioid guidelines by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and a recent article about opioids in the New England Journal of Medicine. In the latter, Jane Ballantyne, MD, and Mark Sullivan, MD, wrote that reducing pain intensity – pain relief – should not be the primary goal of doctors who treat pain patients. They suggest that patients should learn to accept their pain and move on with their lives.

This statement is nothing short of infuriating to me and I imagine to anyone who has to live with chronic pain. Many of us have already heard a doctor say, “I don't prescribe pain medicine. Pain won't kill you.”

There are so many things wrong with that ideology, and the “facts” that are being used to support it in the anti-opioid movement, that it's difficult to know where to begin. There are years of research that show that pain left untreated or under-treated does in fact kill. It may not happen right away, but it greatly affects our quality of life and kills us slowly in a variety of ways.

Most of us know that chronic pain causes depression, anxiety, and even suicidal thoughts. There is also a very long list of comorbidities that often come with chronic pain, including hormonal and metabolic imbalance, impaired immune function, skin rashes, ulcers, incontinence, high blood pressure, and much more -- all of which ultimately lead to a decline in quality of life and overall health.

Unrelieved pain can also permanently change the brain and nervous system, preventing the brain from fully resting and developing new cells to repair brain damage. Research shows that the brains of pain patients can deteriorate over the course of a year at a rate which would take a healthy person's brain one to two decades. Cerebral atrophy causes seizures and dementia, both of which can lead to death, and both of which are preventable in pain patients when given adequate pain care.

Staggeringly, none of this seems to have been taken into consideration by the CDC or the doctors who have written this recommended “treatment” approach. One is perplexed by the “sweep it under the rug” mentality of these doctors, and the many who will be influenced by the CDC and the anti-opioid suggestions published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The facts are this: Opioid misuse is not epidemic in the U.S. (opioid overdose is not even in the top 20 causes of death), but chronic pain is pandemic.

The overwhelming majority of pain patients who use opioids do not abuse or divert them. Yet the majority of patients are under-treated or even untreated for chronic pain. The roots of this mistreatment are myriad, and some are steeped in socio-economic factors such as gender, race, and disability. Minorities are more likely to have their pain minimized or ignored.

In addition, doctors have an exaggerated fear of addiction. Many fear repercussions from the DEA or their state medical board if they prescribe too many opioids, and there is a general lack of pain education on the part of many doctors.

Most of all, money is running the show. It seems that the American healthcare system sees us as useless members of society, who can either be eliminated or turned into eternal consumers. Treating us only with drugs that have dangerous side effects requires a whole new set of medications to treat the host of new ailments that their drugs have given us.

Another cog in the “Big Pharma” takeover of chronic pain (where we are offered treatments such as Lyrica, Neurontin, antidepressants, NSAIDs, biologics, etc., instead of inexpensive and proven opioid therapy) is that the CDC consulted with addiction treatment specialists, as well as insurance and drug company influenced “researchers” who have a conflict of interest.

Dr. Ballantyne, who is a member of the CDC's "Core Expert Group," reports receiving grants from Pfizer and being president of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP). She also served as a consultant to a law firm that litigates against opioid drug makers. Dr. Sullivan reports receiving grants from drug makers developing abuse deterrent products and personal fees from Janssen and Relievant.

We have to speak up. We have to educate ourselves and sometimes our doctors. Many of us don't realize (and some doctors don't want us to realize) that we have a basic human right to pain care. According to the Journal of American Society of Anesthesiology, “the unreasonable failure to treat pain is poor medicine, unethical practice, and is an abrogation of a fundamental human right.”

Doctors and patients must acknowledge that chronic pain is deadly. It can cause countless fatal conditions, not the least of which are heart attack, stroke and brain damage. And while opioids are not the only route to reduced pain, they are very important players in the path to pain relief. For most of us, opioids are part of a multi-modal treatment to lessen our pain, as well as a treatment of last resort.

The “alternative treatments” suggested by the CDC, Ballantyne and Sullivan include therapies most of us have either tried or had fail; or they are already part of our overall pain therapy.

In their article Ballantyne and Sullivan write, “Nothing is more revealing or therapeutic than a conversation between a patient and a clinician, which allows the patient to be heard and the clinician to appreciate the patient's experiences and offer empathy, encouragement, mentorship, and hope.”

I agree with them on this one point. However, they left out one essential element, the treatment plan that the patient and doctor come up with. For most of us, a main component of treatment is opioids.

Now is the time to speak up, before we have brain damage or die. Join me in creating a #PainedLivesMatter movement.

Emily Ullrich suffers from Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS/RSD), Sphincter of Oddi Dysfunction, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, Endometriosis, chronic gastritis, Interstitial Cystitis, Migraines, Fibromyalgia, Osteoarthritis, Periodic Limb Movement Disorder, Restless Leg Syndrome, Myoclonic episodes, generalized anxiety disorder, insomnia, bursitis, depression, multiple chemical sensitivity, and Irritable Bowel Syndrome.

Emily is a writer, artist, filmmaker, and has even been an occasional stand-up comedian. She now focuses on patient advocacy for the Power of Pain Foundation, as she is able.

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.