The Difference Between Addiction and Dependence

By Michael Thompson, Guest Columnist

When a person consumes alcohol or takes a mood altering medication, several things start to happen. First, they begin to develop a tolerance for it, so that over time it takes more of the drug to get the same effect. That can lead to abuse and addiction.

A person may also develop a dependence on a drug.  That means they have a clinical need for a medication.  

Many pain sufferers have found they need more opioid medication to provide relief from their pain, but that doesn’t mean they abuse or misuse it. It also doesn’t make them addicts.

I am dependent on my blood pressure medication to keep my blood pressure in check, but I’m not addicted it. Diabetics are dependent on their medication, but they are not addicted. 

Last year the CDC came out with opioid prescribing guidelines for general practitioners. But restricting the legal prescribing of these drugs will have no effect on the fact that most addicts don’t get their medication from Walgreens or Wal-Mart.  They get their drugs from Bobby the Rat behind Walgreens, or behind the pool hall from Billy the Snitch or Joe the Jerk.  What Bobby, Billy and Joe are selling is heroin, counterfeit painkillers and other illegal drugs.

What effect do these restrictive guidelines have on the illegal use of opioids?  None whatsoever.  The prescribing of opioid painkillers has been on the decline for years.  Most people who overdose are killing themselves with illegal drugs, not drugs obtained from their family doctor. 

Sure, everyone has heard of doctor shopping junkies who will go to an unscrupulous physician, who for $20 in cash will write an opioid prescription without even an examination. But the number of addicts pales in comparison to the number of legitimate chronic pain suffers who have been on these quality-of-life saving drugs for years without ever abusing their medications. Most have no idea where to find Bobby, Billy or Joe, or how to go about buying illegal drugs on the street.

Millions of older adults suffer from osteoarthritis and other neurologically painful conditions for which there is no cure, but there is treatment.  Many are on high doses of pain medication and have been taking these drugs for years, without ending up in the gutter shooting heroin or with a tag on the toe, lying on a tray in in the county medical examiner’s office.  They are not the ones causing headlines. 

Many doctors wrongly believe the CDC guidelines are rules that apply to all who prescribe opioid medication.  They fear that the DEA will come barging in if they go over a minimal amount, prosecute them and take away their license.  Their fear has left many chronic pain patients hanging out to dry, including some who will die because their pain is not being appropriately treated. 

If you have ever suffered from chronic, intense pain you are aware that it is all consuming.  It literally takes over your life.  Many, like me, who once led active lives on high doses of opioids, are now housebound, unable to shop, cook, clean or in many cases even just walk from the bedroom to the kitchen. 

It is a horrible existence, sitting in a chair all day, just trying to make it from morning to evening, and then unable to sleep because the pain is so intense.  Many of these once functional chronic pain sufferers have had their medication cut in half or more. 

As a personal example, I have two torn rotator cuffs that won’t heal.  I have had two surgeries that failed to correct the problem.  My surgeon says he won’t do any more surgeries because the rotator cuffs just continue to tear.  But that’s not all.  I have no cartilage left in my knees, a detached bicep tendon in my left elbow, and peripheral neuropathy in my feet and hands that causes them to burn and ache.  It’s been years since I was able to wear shoes. 

Before the CDC guidelines came out, I was on 6 pills of opioid medication a day.  I had been on this dose for five years and never once abused my medication or took more than was prescribed.  I was able to play golf and worked out three times a week, which helped me to keep my weight off.  When my pain specialist cut my dose in half, I literally crashed and burned.  Since then I have been practically home bound.  My story is similar to that of many other chronic pain sufferers.

So what do we do?  Practically every chronic pain patient has been running from one doctor to another, trying to find someone who will maintain them on the medication that helped them to live a somewhat normal life.  Imagine going to a new specialist, only to find the waiting room filled with dozens of other “new patients” trying to find someone, anyone, who wasn’t terrified of the DEA.

Is the CDC aware that their guidelines for primary care doctors have turned into rules for everyone?  Surely someone has told them about this.  Surely they know.

What’s to become of us?  Will we see a spike in the suicide rate of older adults who can no longer stand the daily struggle?  Will anyone care?

There are a lot of organizations that have tried to explain that the guidelines are not hard and fast rules and that they apply only to general practitioners. But fear is a stronger motivator than common sense. 

It cannot be that drug addicts are more important than patients. Don’t suffer in silence. Call, write a letter, or email your senators and congressman.

Don’t know who represents you in Congress? You can look them up by clicking here.

Michael Thompson is a retired clinical social worker and a licensed chemical dependency counselor. He lives in Texas.

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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.