The Risks of Non-Opioid Pain Medications

By Emily Ullrich, Columnist

As a chronic pain patient for some years now, I have realized the necessity of self-advocacy and have made it a point to become extremely well-educated in regard to patient choices in pain treatment. I also pay very close attention to the constant barrage of anti-opioid propaganda that consumers are exposed to -- an agenda being pushed by the DEA, CDC, and powerful special interest groups.

As a patient advocate and delegate to the Power of Pain Foundation, I am also more aware of the increasing limitations and access to opioid pain treatment that patients are being subjected to. As pain patients, we must be aware of our options, and demand explanations from the medical community and government as to the real reasons why we are being denied or severely limited access to opioids.

The scariest part of this situation is that non-opioid pain medications are now being thrust upon us as one of the “preferred” treatments for chronic pain in the CDC’s draft guidelines for opioid prescribers.

First, it is important to consider the following facts:

Unless a doctor is board certified in pain treatment, he or she receives little to no education in pain management under the current standard medical curriculum. Yet pain is the number one reason people go to a doctor or hospital.

This contradiction causes an enormous gap in knowledge and understanding when it comes to pain, and leads to a tremendous level of under-treated or untreated pain. Many well-intentioned, but uninformed doctors are intimidated by the prevailing climate of opioid hysteria and feel pressured to treat their patients' pain with newer, non-opioid therapies. Many of these medications are being prescribed to patients in an “off-label” fashion.

Two of the most commonly prescribed non-opioid “pain medications” are Lyrica (pregabalin) and Neurontin (gabapentin), both of which were initially approved by the FDA as anti-seizure drugs. The dangers of these medications are too often minimized by doctors, government agencies, and the media -- and to some degree remain unknown (particularly in the long-term).

One thing that has recently been unearthed is that these medicines prevent the formation of new brain synapses. This is not a minor side effect. It can lead to short and long-term memory loss, as well as Alzheimer's disease, among other things.

It can also mean that the brain becomes incapable of neuroplacticity. According to the Huntington Outreach Project at Stanford University, our brains rely on neuroplasticity to “compensate for injury and adjust their activity in response to new situations or changes in their environment.” In lay terms, these drugs cause brain damage.

In addition to the under-reported peril involved in the use of these drugs (and many others that are being used in place of opioids), they also have long and worrisome side effects. The potential side effects of both Lyrica and Neurontin are far too many to list, but include vomiting of blood, pancreatitis, hearing loss, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, “oncologic” (cancerous) potential, heart disease, heart attack, acute kidney failure, and “life-threatening angioedema with respiratory compromise.”

Compare these potential side effects to those of opioids. When used appropriately, the major side effects of opioid pain medication are constipation and dependence -- both of which also happen to be listed as side effects of Lyrica and Neurontin.

When one sees that the most frequently prescribed non-opioid “pain medications” can cause cancer, heart attack, kidney failure, etc., we must question the motives behind this movement to eliminate or greatly reduce the use of opioids. When used properly, opioids have a proven track record of pain relief. So, why are we being told they are so dangerous?

One loathes the idea that a doctor might have ulterior motives when prescribing or that the FDA, DEA, and CDC may have less than ethical intentions. However, it seems necessary to consider the possibility that drug companies may further sicken patients with their “treatments” to ensure lifetime consumers who are forced to buy additional medications to treat the conditions caused by their very own products.

You can easily look up the financial contributions made by “Big Pharma” to your doctors, politicians, special interest groups, and other influential voices in the medical community by visiting ProPublica’s “Dollars for Docs,” Medicare’s Open Payments Database, and

Pfizer for example – the maker of Lyrica and Neurontin – was the top contributor in the health care industry to candidates and political parties during the 2014 election cycle – donating over $1,534,000 to both Democrats and Republicans alike. The top two recipients were Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Senate majority leader Mitch McConell (R-KY).

We must ask these difficult questions and have these taboo conversations for our own good. It is unfortunate that our society has come to this, but if we continue not to question, we will continue to be marginalized. Pain patients suffer enough. We need solutions, not restrictions.

I, for one, will continue to use alternative therapies and choose responsible opioid therapy over newer and more dangerous medications, as long as the law allows. I will continue to push for answers and I hope readers will be incentivized to join me.

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.