AARP’s ‘Opioid Menace’ a Disservice to Pain Patients

(Editor’s note: The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) recently published a series of special reports entitled "The Opioid Menace!"

The series focuses on the abuse of pain medication, claiming that many older Americans have become “new opioid dealers” who are fueling the opioid crisis by “selling their prescription painkillers to drug pushers.” Doctors are also blamed for the “sin of overprescription.”

PNN reader Rochelle Odell was upset about the lack of balance in the series, and sent this letter to AARP.)

Dear AARP Editor:

I have been a member of AARP since I turned 50, due to disability.  I suffer from Complex Regional Pain Syndrome/Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (CRPS/RSD).  Like many long term CRPS patients, my spine is a mess.

I was appalled when I read your article on "The Opioid Menace.” Excuse me, but what a crock of you know what. Your organization has done a great disservice to the tens of millions of Americans who live with chronic pain, including many who are over the age of 50.

Did your reporters contact any of the major pain organizations? I doubt it, from reading your article. I am going to have to spend some time researching the correct numbers, but I believe opioid addiction among chronic/intractable pain patients is less than 5%, a far lower number than you referenced.

When the CDC came out with their opioid guidelines in 2016, which by the way were just that -- guidelines for primary care physicians only -- my medications were stopped, like so many across the country, cold turkey no less. And I had been on pain medication for over 20 years.

My first treating physician didn't believe in pain medication unless absolutely necessary, so I underwent painful blocks for both upper and lower extremities, along with the implant of three different types of spinal cord stimulators and two pain pumps. The first one never worked and the second one, my body rejected.

I was poked and prodded, and my spine underwent such an assault that -- had I known then what I know now, I never would have agreed to.

I was given a variety of medications other than opioids, which never worked or caused side effects so severe, they certainly weren't worth taking. You name it, it was done to me before I was finally placed on an opioid regime only.

ROCHELLE ODELL

ROCHELLE ODELL

Now that I am "opioid free," my pain is off the scale. I no longer function. I have been house/bed bound since December. My vehicle sits dead in the garage. I have become too ill to even go to the doctor.

I contacted my Medicare Advantage insurance company for assistance due to my circumstances, but their willingness to help ended there.  See, I am supposed to find the energy to take a shower, get dressed, ride in a vehicle to a new primary care physician, then wait in the office and hope the physician can assist me. I can barely make it to the bathroom, let alone venture to a doctor's office. To top it off, my voice is now affected and I no longer talk on the phone.

I am but one among many across our nation, who has been adversely affected by these guidelines and false statistics. Your organization needs to research, then report the other side of the coin. Those of us who have lost the ability to function or live in severe pain, non-stop 24/7, 365 days a year, are suffering. Tell our story, please! 

Just because a person dies with prescription drugs in their system, does not mean they died of an overdose. It just means they had drugs in their system at the time of death. 

A chronic pain patient sees their pain management physician on a regular basis, usually monthly. We dutifully sign pain contracts and pee into the cup. It can be so degrading, but if we do not, we are labeled non-compliant and dropped.

A chronic pain patient guards their pain medication to a fault, they are too valuable for our survival to risk losing or selling. Yes, there are a few, very few, who use too many per month or divert them for money, but a good pain physician keeps track of that abuse, as do pharmacies.

Do illicit drug users do this? No, they only look forward to their next high. A chronic pain patient never gets high off their medication, their pain is that overwhelming. Illicit drug users steal and prostitute themselves to feed their habit. Unfortunately, even older Americans who have had their medications stopped or significantly reduced are now forced to search on the streets/internet for drugs for their pain.

Believe me, if I had the money and knew where to look, I might be tempted to do the same. But living on a fixed income precludes anything illegal. We didn't ask for these painful diseases, and we didn't ask that our careers be halted in our 40's and 50's in one fell swoop. If we could give our diseases back, we would in a heartbeat, including the drugs needed just to function.

Another issue is the fact many illicit drug users use heroin laced with fentanyl, along with mixing alcohol to obtain their high. Or the growing number of illicit drug factories that have been raided within the past year. Drug dealers are churning out hundreds of thousands of counterfeit fentanyl/oxycodone pills. Pill presses are shipped from China and the drug cartels south of the border, along with the illicit drugs required to make these pills. Did your reporters research this? No.

Living alone at 70 and not functioning has been a real test. Thankfully, I do my food shopping online, so my dog and I don't starve. It isn't the same as doing my own shopping, but I can purchase food including frozen and fresh.  I pay my neighbors a small amount to pull the weeds from my yard and pick up my dog's waste. But I am very close to just walking away from a home I have lived in for fifteen years, that's how severe my situation has become and I am not unique.

You only interviewed a very tiny group of people who claim to have gotten hooked on prescription drugs. AARP has overlooked the real problem, which is illicit drugs, not prescription drugs. I don't know where your reporters obtained their statistics, but they are far off base.

Like many elected officials and government regulators, AARP has grossly overlooked a significant number of people adversely affected by this false information. I could go on and on about the damage your article and incorrect information has caused to chronic pain patients. Quite frankly, I expected better from AARP.

Rochelle Odell lives in California.

To see the AARP series and watch a video version, click here.

Pain News Network invites other readers to share their stories with us.  Send them to:  editor@PainNewsNetwork.org

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.