Poorly Treated Pain Linked to Opioid Misuse

By Pat Anson, Editor

A provocative new study has found that untreated or poorly treated pain is causing many young adults to self-medicate and turn to the black market for pain relief. The research adds to a growing body of evidence that efforts to limit opioid prescribing are leading to more opioid misuse and addiction, not less.

The study, published in the Journal of Addiction Medicine, involved nearly 200 young adults in Rhode Island who used opioid pain medication “non-medically” – meaning they didn’t have a prescription for opioids or used them in a way other than prescribed. About 85 percent had experienced some type of injury or health condition that caused severe pain.

Three out of four said they started misusing opioids to treat their physical pain. Most went to see a doctor to treat their pain, but about a third -- 36 percent of the women and 27 percent of the men -- said their doctor refused to prescribe a pain medication.

“In addition to being denied medication to treat severe pain by a physician, a significant percentage (20%) of young NMPO (non-medical prescription opioid) users who reported experiencing a high level of pain did not try to obtain treatment from a doctor for reasons including the belief that they would be denied prescription painkillers and/or having no health insurance,” said lead author Brandon D.L. Marshall, PhD, of Brown University School of Public Health.

“Pervasive negative perceptions of healthcare providers (and/or the medical system in general), and also issues related to accessing healthcare resources, may also underlie the high prevalence of professionally unmitigated physical pain in this population of young adults who use NMPOs in Rhode Island.”

Participants were between the ages of 18 and 29, used opioids at least once non-medically in the past 30 days, and were enrolled in the Rhode Island Young Adult Prescription Drug Study (RAPiDS). Most also used heroin, marijuana, cocaine, LSD or another illegal drug more than once a week.

“Although this is a small study and we can't draw conclusions from it, I do think it sheds light on what can be unintended consequences if we are not willing to treat pain in people with increased risk factors and co-morbid mental health disorders,” said Lynn Webster, MD, past president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine. “These results may reflect the increased number of physicians who are unwilling to prescribe an opioid if there are risk factors or maybe just unwilling to prescribe an opioid.  It also shows that a consequence of not treating severe pain in people who also have significant risk of abuse may lead to illicit drug use and more harm."

Participants in the study who did not see a doctor for their pain had a variety of reasons:

  • 48% Thought they could handle the pain or manage it with over-the-counter drugs
  • 25% Thought they would be denied a prescription painkiller
  • 40% Don’t like seeing a doctor
  • 25% Had no health insurance

This was not the first study to find a correlation between poorly treated pain and drug abuse. A 2012 study of young adults who misused opioids in New York City and Los Angeles found that over half self-medicated with an opioid to treat severe pain. One in four had been denied a prescription opioid to manage severe pain.

A recent study of 462 adults who injected drugs in British Columbia found that nearly two-thirds had been denied prescription opioids. Nearly half had also been accused of drug seeking.

A recent survey of over 3,100 pain patients by PNN and iPain found that 11% had obtained opioids illegally for pain relief and 22% were hoarding opioids because they weren’t sure if they’d be able to get them in the future. Large majorities believe the CDC opioid guidelines were failing to prevent opioid abuse and overdoses (85%), and were harmful to pain patients (94%).