Most Patients Don’t Think Opioids Are Risky

By Pat Anson, Editor

A small survey of chronic pain sufferers may give physicians a better understanding  of why many patients are reluctant to reduce or discontinue their use of opioids. Most patients simply don’t see themselves at risk of abuse and addiction, and think they can manage their opioid use safely.

Researchers at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and the VA Eastern Colorado Health Care System conducted in-depth interviews with 24 patients who were on long-term opioid therapy for chronic non-cancer pain. Six of the patients were still taking their regular opioid dose, 12 were tapering, and 6 had discontinued the use of opioids.

When asked about specific concerns related to opioid medications, patients were generally aware of opioid overdose as a potential complication but did not perceive themselves to be at risk,” said lead author Joseph Frank, MD, assistant professor of medicine and a primary care physician at the VA Medical Center in Denver.

The majority of patients described a long history of opioid medication use without prior overdose and cited this as evidence of their ability to safely take opioid medications. Patients attributed overdoses to others using opioids in risky ways or overdosing intentionally rather than accidentally.”

The survey findings, published in the journal Pain Medicine, include comments from some of the patients.

“Overdose? No. I’m very mature, very conscious, very intelligent as far as adhering,” said a 52-year old man who was still taking his regular opioid dose.

“The concern is that if they increase my opioid dosage, I could stop breathing. It’s ridiculous,” said another patient who was also taking his normal dose.

Even patients who were tapering or had discontinued opioids said that overdose risk was not their primary motive for cutting back. Others said they were so focused on pain relief they were willing to overlook the side effects of opioids.

“I like to research everything, but the pain was so severe I didn’t care about anything else... I don’t think that people actually consider the side effects and what not when it comes to something like that. I think that they just want the pain to go away,” said a 46-year old woman who was tapering.

“I don’t think people in chronic pain think about long term. We are basically, how do I get through today? I just gotta get through today,” said another woman who was still taking her regular dose.

Many patients said they had extensive experience with non-opioid therapies and found they weren’t effective. That led to pessimism about their ability to manage pain without opioids.

“I needed help desperately by the time [hydrocodone] was prescribed for me... I had taken ibuprofen, Aleve, everything over the counter, and it did nothing to help me at all. So I knew I needed more help, stronger help,” said a 73-year old woman who was tapering.

"Throughout my life, the doctors have done everything, trying to get me to exercise, to stretch, things that shocked my muscles,” said a 58-year old man. “In the ‘70s, they put some kind of body cast on me that I wore for months... Gosh, I’ve had everything. I’ve went through all the minor ones like Tylenols and aspirins and stuff, you know... I’ve went through a few years on Morphine. I’ve went to a time on Oxycodone and OxyContin, Vicodin, Tramadol. Now I’m on Fentanyl patches.”

Several patients said they eventually decided to taper when they realized that opioids weren’t helping as much or reduced their quality of life.

“The pills turned out horribly for me... I wasn’t caring for myself. I wasn’t bathing. I was sleeping all the time... Everything in my life was such a mess, and my husband was, you know, really worried about me... My husband [told me] that this is bad. This is really bad. You’re not doing well,” said a woman who was tapering.

“I didn’t stop under doctor’s orders or discussion or anything. I just got up one day and I’m done,” said a 60-year old male patient. “Instead of taking four, I took three and I did that for a couple of weeks and then I took two and then I took one. I never felt any discomfort or anxiety or anything so... it worked for me.”

Patients who tapered successfully emphasized the support they received from family, friends and healthcare providers in helping them make the transition.

“My doctor is very conscientious, and I respect her very much... It wasn’t her idea to take me off OxyContin,” said a 73-year old woman. “I just quit cold turkey, which was difficult... She was overjoyed. She thought it was just great that I didn’t need it anymore."

“It’s not much worse without the medication as it is with it. After you’ve taken it for a while, it doesn’t do any good. That’s what I’ve found,” said a 61-year old woman. “But that’s hard to convince people of it. They look at me like I’m nuts, but it’s true... I mean my pain is not any more severe than it was when I was taking all that stuff.”

“I am more alert since I stopped taking [OxyContin], and I need less sleep, which is a blessing. So I’m able to do more things with my life,” said a 72-year-old female patient.

The researchers admit their study was small and may not be representative of the pain community. But they think there are important lessons to learn from it, because tapering “may become an increasingly common patient experience.”

"To achieve goals of improving quality of life and preventing opioid-related harms, we need better evidence and more resources to support patients both during and after this challenging transition," Frank said.  It will be important to ensure that patients' voices are heard in the national conversation about these medications."