What Rights Do Pain Patients Have?

By Carol Levy, Columnist

Too often when I read comments posted to articles about the “opioid epidemic” or the CDC opioid guidelines, someone will write that “we need to bring a class action lawsuit.”

I am always perplexed by this.

Many of us feel we have the right to treatment for our pain, including the right to opioids.

But the only potential idea under which this might be considered a “right” (disclaimer: I am not an attorney) is in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men... are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Most of us do not have pain from a terminal condition. That takes care of the right to life. Many of us are imprisoned by our pain, but that is not the liberty the founders meant. The only one potentially relevant is the right to happiness.

What a great thought:  We are entitled to be happy. But are we? No. Those rights are not codified in law. They are a statement of belief.

How about the Patient’s Bill of Rights? It too is not a legally binding document.

It does not specifically include the right to pain management, only a right to treatment with “available resources and generally accepted standards,” along with the right to refuse that treatment.

Many states have specific guidelines. But as with the CDC opioid recommendations, they are merely guidelines (although often treated as rules and regulations).

Pain consumes us. More so, I think, then almost any other disease or disorder. If it is constant, we cannot put it aside. Being with friends, going out to dinner, even sleeping may not provide a scintilla of relief or distraction.

How then can it not feel like we have the right to pain relief? Why is it we cannot demand treatment, demand opioids?

Simply put, it is not the way the country or the world works.

We have the right to access health care. We have the right to say to a doctor, “Please treat my pain.” But we do not have the right to force a doctor to see us or to provide a particular treatment, such as opioids. The doctor also has a right to say, “No, I cannot help you.” or “I do not see pain patients.”

Maybe if we looked at it from a different angle, we can gain some distance.

If I have a rash, I go to a doctor. If I say, “I want you to prescribe this drug,” he doesn't have to agree. He may refer me to a dermatologist who says, “I don't treat rashes.” I can't demand that he treat me. I have to look for someone who does.

We can try and find a doctor who will agree, but there is always a chance we will not be able to find one. That does not mean our rights are being abrogated or denied. It merely means we have to work harder to find a doctor who will help us, no matter how daunting a task that may be.

It means that we have to accept the fact that we may want one form of treatment, but the doctor is not obligated to provide it.

And it means understanding that we have a right to try and find care, but not a right to demand it.

Carol Jay Levy has lived with trigeminal neuralgia, a chronic facial pain disorder, for over 30 years. She is the author of “A Pained Life, A Chronic Pain Journey.” 

Carol is the moderator of the Facebook support group “Women in Pain Awareness.” Her blog “The Pained Life” can be found here.

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.