By Chrystal Weaver, Guest Columnist
I have been suffering from Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS) Type 2 for nearly six years. I first got this disease as a result of a botched back surgery called a kyphoplasty.
The bone cement they used was too thin in consistency, which allowed it to travel to my epidural space and kill off most of the axons in my nerves; which in turn caused my left foot and ankle to be paralyzed with indescribable burning pain, electric shock pain, bone crushing pain, and pins and needles pain.
It’s been nearly six years of living hell.
I was 46 when this happened and I was working as a CPA in Florida. At the time, we had pain management clinics in abundance and doctors were not afraid to prescribe opiates. They worked with you to get your dose to the point where it was effective for your individual needs, without causing side effects like over sedation.
The dose of medication I was on took my pain down from a 9 or 10 to a bearable 3 or 4 level. I was able not only to continue to work, but to attend my son’s baseball games, go to the beach with him, take him on vacations and be an active mom.
Then when Florida got all the bad press due to pill mills, and the DEA and state law enforcement cleared out the bad operators, good doctors also got caught up in the net. This had a profound effect on doctors who were using pain medication in good faith and a “chilling effect” occurred. Pain management doctors left the field in droves. Those who remained were unwilling to maintain me on the regime I was taking and that was working for me.
CRPS has the nickname “the suicide disease” for a very good reason. It is not curable and there is no effective treatment for the disease. Any medication, narcotic or non narcotic, is prescribed “off label” because there is not one medication approved for CRPS by the FDA. I tried spinal cord stimulation, nerve blocks, Prialt, antidepressants, anti-seizure medication, and acupuncture. I couldn’t bear for my foot or lower leg to be touched, so massage was not an option. I even had high dose ketamine infusion treatment at the University of Miami. All to no avail.
Because of the aggressive law enforcement tactics that shut down the bad operators, the pendulum has swung the other way to the extreme. There were huge unintended consequences in Florida’s efforts to shut down the pill mills. I was taken down to about 30% of the old dosage I was on, which allowed me to work and be a great mom. The new dosage never gets my pain below a level 6.
I ended up losing my job due to poor performance and had to apply for Social Security disability after a 25 year career in the accounting field. I stopped going to baseball games, that my son wants desperately me to see, but I just cannot go. I am now home-bound and cannot perform the activities of daily living. If I did not have a 12 year old son, the pain has been so unbearable I would have taken my life by now.
I do not exaggerate when I say this pain is like being a prisoner of war. It can take the most mentally sound, happy and stable person, and make that person wish that they would not wake up. This should not be happening in the most advanced country in the world.
The saddest part of all is that the government actions did not even solve the problem of people abusing drugs and overdosing. The people that were abusing narcotics have switched to the much easier to obtain and much cheaper heroin. The population that has been greatly harmed by what the government has done is the legitimate chronic pain patients in Florida and indeed all over the United States.
The heavy handed tactics used by our government gained nothing. The people who want to abuse drugs have turned to a much more dangerous substitute, where they have no clue regarding the potency of what they are putting in their bodies, nor do they have any idea of the contaminants they are ingesting. We have traded a decrease in prescription opiate abuse for increased heroin abuse, while leaving legitimate chronic pain patients severely undertreated and in many cases untreated for their pain.
Every person is unique. Cookie cutter recommended dosages do not work for human beings. There will always be outliers on both sides of the bell curve. Some people do well with small doses of opiates and some people require higher doses to bring their pain down to a manageable level.
I understand that the CDC’s prescribing guidelines are meant for primary care physicians. However, it is highly likely that pain management doctors will follow the guidelines as well. Even if a pain specialist were to prescribe doses above the guidelines for patients with diseases that are debilitating painful, it would be impossible to find a pharmacy willing to fill the prescription. We already are having a very real problem being able to fill prescriptions now.
I cannot imagine how much more difficulty chronic pain patients will have accessing their medication should these guidelines go into effect. I cannot even count how many times I have been forced into withdrawal after spending over $150 on taxi fare going from pharmacy to pharmacy, only to be told that they do not have the medication in stock or that they no longer carry that medication. I am a single mother. I have no family living that can help me take care of my son when I lay on the couch in level 10 pain from CRPS and the pain of withdrawal. No one should be made to suffer like this. No one.
I don’t enjoy taking narcotics. I purposely had my baby at home with midwives and no pain medication or epidural because I did not want unnecessary medical interference with what is a natural occurrence. I can take pain. It was my first and only child.
I explored the possibility of getting my left leg amputated below the knee if that would free me from the pain of this disease. But it does not take away the pain and CRPS does spread. It is now in my right foot and lower leg.
So there is nothing more that I can do medically to treat the pain effectively, except for taking opiates at the dose and combination that was effective for me. But I have no way of obtaining that same dose and combination of short and long acting opiate medications that allowed me to live at a level 3 or 4 on the pain scale. My son needs his mother and for the last 5 years I am still breathing, but I certainly am not living.
I also want to emphasize that there are numerous diseases and conditions that are not malignant, but are just as painful if not more painful than cancer pain. CRPS is listed as a rare condition by the National Institutes of Health, but there are many more orphan and rare diseases whose primary feature is severe debilitating pain with no cure and no real effective treatment.
Alarmists cite an increase in opiate prescriptions without putting it in the proper context. Most baby boomers are in their fifties or sixties now and people are living longer due to medical advances. Sun Belt states like Florida have a higher retirement population than northern states do. Pain was undertreated in the early 1990s before pain was classified as the fifth vital sign.
Alarmists also point to the number of deaths from opiates being over 16,000 annually. But they have no way of knowing if that person intended to take their life or if the death was accidental. 16,000 deaths does not an epidemic make. I shudder to think of the real epidemic that will occur if these arbitrary guidelines are adopted by the CDC. Wounded veteran suicides will dramatically increase, along with suicides from 100 million chronic pain patients in this country. Some will begin to abuse alcohol to try to get relief. I’m certain that some will be willing to break the law and turn to the streets for heroin if they happen to know where they can obtain it.
Pain should be managed as we manage diabetes in this country. You are prescribed the number of units you need to get your blood sugar as close to 100 as possible without causing your blood sugar to drop too low. Pain has been subjective until the advent of the functional MRI. Pain doctors can verify that you are in pain using fMRI.
We would never lock up 100 people in prison if one of them were guilty of murder just to punish the one murderer. But this is precisely what has happened in the treatment of chronic debilitating intractable and incurable chronic pain. In order to protect a small portion of the population from themselves, our government has cast 99 innocent people in prison in order to punish the one murderer.
Drug addicts will always be able to obtain their drug of choice, while chronic pain patients languish in their homes unable to participate in life; waiting and wanting to never wake up because the pain is going to be the same as the day before, just like the movie Groundhog Day.
I was very active and enjoying my life, my career and my son until one medical procedure changed my life forever. Your life can change in a blink of an eye. A loved ones’ life can change in the blink of an eye. Every human being deserves to have their pain managed appropriately. Anything else amounts to torture.
Chrystal Weaver has submitted these comments to the CDC. The public comment period on the CDC's opioid prescribing guideline continues until January 13th.
Pain News Network invites other readers to share their stories with us. Send them to: editor@PainNewsNetwork.org.
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.