Will CDC Opioid Guidelines Help Reduce Overdoses?

By Lynn Webster, MD, Guest Columnist

Politicians and some government officials tell us that the new CDC opioid guidelines will reduce deaths due to overdoses. But, based on the evidence we’ve seen so far, that is unlikely.

The latest CDC report shows a continual increase in opioid-related overdose deaths despite about a 25% decrease in the number of opioids prescribed.  This data demonstrates that an absolute reduction in opioid prescribing hasn’t resulted in the intended outcome – so far, at least. It may be counter-intuitive, but I think you’ll understand why in a moment.

The problem is more complex than the lawmakers, CDC, and regulators would have us believe. Simply reducing the amount of opioids prescribed will not necessarily affect overdose death rates as you might expect. In fact, it might do just the opposite.

What happens is that, when we reduce the amount of opioids that are prescribed, we force many of those with opioid addictions to switch to illegal opioids such as heroin and synthetic fentanyl, which are far more dangerous than prescription opioids.

If the amount of opioid prescribing were reduced dramatically, it would likely reduce the number of deaths from prescription opioids. But there would almost certainly be a significant increase in abuse of other drugs. That could result in more overdoses than we’re seeing now. We’ve already seen more deaths due to the increased use of heroin, but heroin is only one of many illegal drugs that can be abused.

Reducing the supply side of the addiction problem does not address the demand for opioids, nor does it help address the needs of people with the disease of addiction.

Of course, additional “collateral harm” can occur with people in pain who benefit from opioids, and it is unacceptable to any person with compassion. Denying prescriptions to people who have been benefiting from opioids is a misguided attempt to save the lives of people with opioid addictions at the expense of people with pain.

People with pain will suffer, and that suffering won’t save the lives of people with addictions who turn to illegal substances. Additionally, in all likelihood, we will see an increase in suicides from people who just cannot live with their level of pain.

There are about 104 suicides per day (compared to 44 opioid-related overdoses per day). In my opinion, intractable pain is a contributing factor in many of these suicides. I suspect that, as we see more and more people denied opioids for their pain, we will see an increase in the number of suicides. I base this on my experience of seeing many patients commit suicide in my practice despite having access to all of the available treatments.

Severe pain is not always compatible with choosing to live.

Reducing deaths related to over-prescribing opioids would be a good thing and must be a priority. But, if we want to reduce the amount of opioids prescribed for people in pain, then we must provide them another, safer way to handle their pain.

Trading opioid-related deaths for either death related to illegal drugs or to suicides because of pain, is not an acceptable solution. We need something better to offer people in pain, and we need it soon.

Lynn R. Webster, MD, is past President of the American Academy of Pain Medicine, Vice President of scientific affairs at PRA Health Sciences, and the author of “The Painful Truth.”

This column is republished with permission from Dr. Webster’s blog.

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