10 Myths About the Opioid Crisis

By Roger Chriss, Columnist

There is no shortage of false statements being made about opioids. As the overdose crisis worsens, old and debunked claims reappear, while new claims rise up alongside them. Pundits, politicians and even physicians are perpetuating them, despite all evidence to the contrary.

So let’s set the record straight in order to promote an informed dialog about opioid medication, chronic pain, and the opioid crisis.

Myth 1: America has 5% of the world’s population but uses 80% of the world’s opioids.

Numerous politicians, such as Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, as well as many journalists, have made this statement. It is demonstrably false.

In fact, the U.S. only uses about 30% of the world’s opioid supply. That estimate includes the addiction treatment drugs methadone and buprenorphine, both of which are opioids.

Myth 2: 80% of heroin addicts began by abusing prescription opioids.

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This myth is pernicious because it is based on a kernel of truth. The number is correct but the implication is wrong. Only 4 to 6% of people who misuse prescription opioids go on to use heroin. And the number of people who start heroin without taking prescription opioids first has been rising in the past year.

Myth 3: Addiction starts with a prescription.

This claim persists despite decades of data to the contrary. A 2010 study found that only one-third of 1% of chronic pain patients without a history of substance abuse became addicted to opioids during treatment. Most abuse begins when people take medication that was not prescribed to them, using pills that were stolen, purchased illegally, or obtained from friends and family members.  

Myth 4: Opioid use leads to pain sensitization or ‘opioid induced hyperalgesia.’

Addiction treatment specialists like to repeat the claim that long-term opioid use makes patients hypersensitive to pain. But hyperalgesia is poorly understood and often confused with opioid tolerance. One study found that chronic pain patients on opioids had no difference in pain sensitivity when compared to patients on non-opioid treatments.    

Myth 5: Opioid overdoses are killing 64,000 people per year.

Nearly 64,000 Americans died from drug overdoses last year, according to the CDC, so that part is true. But opioids were involved in only about two-thirds of those deaths – and most of those overdoses involved heroin and illicit fentanyl.

Myth 6: Reduced opioid prescribing will end the overdose crisis.

Reduced prescribing is clearly not working.The number of opioid prescriptions has been in steady decline since 2010, yet fatal overdoses have risen sharply ever since.

Myth 7: Medical cannabis will cure the opioid crisis.

This is a recurring myth, made popular again in 2017. Unfortunately, not only does the recent data show that medical cannabis is not helping in states where it is legal, the underlying assumption of this myth is that chronic pain care is driving the opioid crisis. This is not the case.

Myth 8: Banning opioid medication will fix the opioid crisis.

This was put forth again early in 2017 by New Hampshire attorney Cecie Hartigan. Setting aside the problem of banning illegal drugs like heroin and fentanyl analogues (they are already banned), opioids are simply too medically useful to give up. Moreover, prior experience with drug bans, from Prohibition to the current overdose crisis, shows that bans do not stop misuse or addiction.

Myth 9: There are lots of ways to treat chronic pain

This myth has become increasingly popular as states, medical facilities, and health insurers pursue policies to reduce opioid prescribing. Although some of these methods, from physical therapy to spinal cord stimulators, may prove helpful, that misses the fundamental point. Chronic pain disorders are so horrible that all effective options, including opioid therapy, need to be on the table.

Myth 10: Opioids are ineffective for chronic pain.

This is the biggest myth of all. There is an abundance of high-quality research showing that opioids can be effective for some forms of chronic pain. Here’s a partial list of recent studies:

Adding to these studies is a recent review in Medscape, in which Charles Argoff, MD, a professor of neurology at Albany Medical College, said that “in multiple guidelines and in multiple communications, we have a sense that chronic opioid therapy can be effective."

New myths appear regularly, but these persist despite all efforts to counter them. Like an ear-worm or viral meme, they cannot be eliminated. The only defense is knowledge.

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Roger Chriss lives with Ehlers Danlos syndrome and is a proud member of the Ehlers-Danlos Society. Roger is a technical consultant in Washington state, where he specializes in mathematics and research.

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.