Why Human Suffering Should Bother You

By Margaret Aranda, MD, Columnist

Patients go to doctors when they have pain and doctors can give them opioid medication to relieve that pain. That should not bother you, because it is a decision made between the physician and the patient.

No doctor has the right to strip a patient of dignity by minimizing or downplaying their pain. We can't become indifferent to the denial of pain, because pain is real. Pain hurts.

A recent column in The Conversation by Dr. Andrew Kolodny bothers me because of two sentences:

"They (opioids) are also helpful when used for a couple of days after major surgery or a serious accident. Unfortunately, the bulk of the opioid prescriptions in the U.S. are for common conditions, like back pain," wrote Kolodny, who is a psychiatrist, not a pain management doctor.

Let’s look at the different ways that Dr. Kolodny is minimizing pain:

Postoperative Pain: A large study recently found that long-term opioid use after surgery is rare. Yet some patients are now being denied opioids after major surgery because of fears they might become addicted. Patients should ask questions about how their postop pain will be treated before surgery and get another surgeon if no opioids are to be offered. Patients do not have to allow a surgeon to minimize their pain.

Trauma:  Serious accidents cause severe trauma. Severe trauma can take months, years or decades to alleviate, leaving patients with chronic pain through no fault of their own. Many are burned, disfigured, scarred, disabled, have a pain syndrome, use a wheelchair, and go on disability or Medicare. 

We cannot allow ourselves to minimize any degree of pain that leads to suffering, less zest for living, and lower quality of life.

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Back Pain: Millions of people have low back pain and the added mental health stress that often comes with it, which costs the U.S. economy $100-200 billion in lost workdays and productivity annually. Don't minimize their pain, either!

Treating Pain:  No doctor who witnesses a patient suffering in an emergency room, operating room or intensive care unit should minimize their pain. I've worked in all three as a board certified anesthesiologist and intensive care unit doctor, and am a witness to how an Ivy League university, private clinic, free clinic, county hospital, women's hospital, and Veterans Administration hospitals treat severe pain that may never, ever get better. I'm also a witness as a rebel patient who was offered acetaminophen and ibuprofen for my postop pain.

Physician judgment: Many patients with chronic pain are disabled and legally protected from discrimination. They have failed other therapies and deserve opioid medication for quality of life. They are not bad people, and they have not done anything wrong. Nevertheless, they are often treated like "today's lepers," as Dr. Thomas Kline says. So don't minimize their pain.

Patient Perspective: While on opioids, many chronic pain patients can get out of bed, work a job and keep their families together. They aren't addicts, do not sell their pills, steal money from others to get more, are not estranged from their families for a “drug problem,” and have never had naloxone used on them.

If they are lucky enough to still get an opioid prescription, many are being treated like criminals with rigors that do not stand on evidence-based medicine. They are forced to sign pain contracts, undergo drug tests, and then deal with pharmacy restrictions. Even with pills in hand, it is often not enough. There is an epidemic of undertreated chronic pain, so don't minimize the patient.

Patient Outcome: Unilateral withdrawal or sudden tapering of opioid therapy leads to patient suffering, sleep loss and decreased quality of life. A patient can become bedridden, depressed, and some have committed suicide! It all starts with non-validation of pain.

The Doctor's Oath

No doctor has a right to label, stigmatize, minimize or abandon a patient, much less a patient in pain. To stay clear of this, every medical student is taught to preserve patient dignity and autonomy. Nevertheless, patients are being withdrawn from opioid therapy all over America today, and it is being done by doctors who minimize pain, break the physician-patient bond, and dishonor the Hippocratic Oath.

We've known for over 150 years that doctors commit suicide twice as often as other professions. I think the current situation truly bothers most compassionate doctors, who will be struggling even more in the years to come with physician burnout syndrome. We could see even more suicides by medical students and physicians. 

Doctors are supposed to save lives, and it is just as important to save quality of life. Without quality of life, it is entirely human to have moments when death seems to be the only option out of a life of suffering. Doctors need to keep patients away from having suicidal thoughts, especially if their illness is something that modern medicine can take care of and is severely undertreated, like pain.

It is important to the public in general, and to patients who are disabled in particular, that everyone understands that there are doctors who work night and day for patients who are in pain. We are passionate about it because doctors are healers and no one is ever going to change the meaning of being a real doctor.

I was reminded of this recently when I saw the revised version of the Hippocratic Oath by the World Medical Association. Two important sentences depict how doctors should be responding to pain and their patients:

“I WILL RESPECT the autonomy and dignity of my patient."

"I WILL NOT USE my medical knowledge to violate human rights and civil liberties, even under threat."

When we minimize pain, we minimize the patient. When we minimize the patient, the patient dies.

So go ahead and let human suffering bother you. It proves that you still have empathy and compassion. 

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Dr. Margaret Aranda is a Stanford and Keck USC alumni in anesthesiology and critical care. She has dysautonomia and postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS) after a car accident left her with traumatic brain injuries that changed her path in life to patient advocacy.

Margaret is a board member of the Invisible Disabilities Association. She has authored six books, the most recent is The Rebel Patient: Fight for Your Diagnosis. You can follow Margaret’s expert social media advice on Twitter, Google +, Blogspot, Wordpress. and LinkedIn.

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.