Untreated Pain Raises Risk of Drug & Alcohol Abuse

By Pat Anson, Editor

Nearly nine out of ten people who abuse drugs or alcohol have chronic pain and most are using the substances for pain relief, according to the findings of a new study at Boston University School of Medicine.

The study seems likely to stir further debate about the nation’s opioid abuse problem and whether taking patients off pain medication or lowering their doses will only lead to more substance abuse.

Researchers surveyed nearly 600 primary care patients who screened positive for illegal drug use, misuse of prescription drugs or heavy alcohol use and found that 87 percent of them had chronic pain. About half rated their pain as severe.

Over half (51%) of the patients who admitted using marijuana, cocaine, heroin or other illegal drugs said they did it to treat pain.

And about eight out of ten who abused prescription pain medication (81%) or alcohol (79%) said they did it to manage pain.

"While the association between chronic pain and drug addiction has been observed in prior studies, this study goes one step further to quantify how many of these patients are using these substances specifically to treat chronic pain,” said lead author Daniel Alford, MD, an associate professor of medicine at Boston University School of Medicine.

“In this study, it was common for patients to attribute their substance use to treating symptoms of pain. Over half of the cohort using illicit drugs, two thirds misusing prescription drugs without a prescription, and one-third using their prescription in greater amounts than prescribed, reported doing so to treat pain. Among those with any recent heavy alcohol use, over one-third drank to treat their pain, compared to over three-quarters of those who met the criteria for current high-risk alcohol use.”

Alford said it was important for primary care doctors and addiction counselors to recognize the link between pain and substance abuse, because counseling efforts are likely to fail if a patient’s pain is not addressed.

“If drugs are being used to self-medicate pain, patients may be reluctant to decrease, stop or remain abstinent if their pain symptoms are not adequately managed,” Alford wrote.

“Addressing pain symptoms is complicated for the most experienced physician and is outside the skill set of most allied health staff performing brief intervention counseling. Brief interventions focusing solely on the harmful effects of an illicit or misused drug may be ignored or disregarded if the patient perceives the drug as necessary to treat a symptom.”

The study is published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.