The Myth of the Opioid Addicted Chronic Pain Patient

By Roger Chriss, Columnist

Prescription opioid use for chronic pain does not usually lead to addiction or to the use of illicit opioids such as heroin. But media reports often say otherwise.

“Opioids can be so addictive that many people develop a desperate need for them even after the pain has subsided, or disappeared. So when they’re turned away by doctors and pharmacies, they look for a fix on the streets,” Fox News recently reported.

Public officials also confuse the issue.

“Most of our constituents with substance-use disorders began their path to addiction after forming dependencies to opioids prescribed as a result of an injury or other medical issue,’ Anne Arundel County Executive Steve Schuh wrote in a letter to Maryland doctors. ‘Their opioid dependence may have led to obtaining illegal street opioids like heroin, sometimes laced with fentanyl, after valid prescriptions ran out.’”

But this is not what usually happens.

“What the media has sometimes missed is that of those people who started with prescription opioids and then went on to use heroin, 75% never had a legal prescription for opioids. They were already stealing or buying the drugs illegally,” Judith Paice, PhD, RN, director of the Cancer Pain Program at Northwestern University told Medscape.

In other words, the reality of opioid therapy for chronic painful conditions is quite different from what media coverage and public officials claim.

In fact, the majority of chronic pain patients never even receive opioid medications. Recent estimates state that between 8 and 11 million chronic pain patients receive an opioid prescription at some point in a given year, with only some of them taking opioids for pain control on a daily basis.

Although that is a large number, it is dwarfed by the National Institutes of Health’s estimate that 25.3 million Americans live with daily chronic pain and nearly 40 million have severe pain. That  includes people in hospice and other end-of-life care, as well as people enduring cancer pain.

Moreover, many of the chronic pain patients who receive daily opioid therapy get there only after having failed many other treatment options, including non-opioid drugs and physical therapy. Opioids are rarely the first choice for treating persistent pain conditions, especially in the wake of opioid prescribing guidelines from the CDC, Department of Veterans Affairs, and some states.

Chronic pain patients are carefully screened, scrutinized, and monitored. They are subjected to risk assessment using the Opioid Risk Tool, required to take urine and saliva drug tests, told to show their prescription bottles and have their pills counted, and given pain contracts to sign. Their prescriptions are verified at pharmacies and tracked through prescription drug monitoring programs. Opioid misuse in any form is readily detected and is far from common.

Therefore, it is a myth that opioid addiction or other forms of opioid use disorder starts with a prescription. Instead, it almost always begins at a young age with the misuse of other drugs, such as tobacco, alcohol and marijuana. About 90% of drug addiction starts during adolescence.

And although most people who are addicted to heroin have previously used prescription opioids, the opposite is not true. Most people on opioid therapy do not become addicted to prescription opioids, and most of the people who do become addicted do not transition to heroin.

But the myth confuses and conflates chronic pain and opioid addiction. And this is having real-world consequences, both for people on opioid therapy for chronic pain and for people with opioid use disorder.

For people on opioid therapy, the problems include forced medication tapers or even termination of therapy. Pain management is an essential part of a variety of diseases and disorders, from the neuropathy of arachnoiditis and multiple sclerosis, to the visceral pain of interstitial cystitis and porphyria, to the musculoskeletal pain of Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. The choice and dose of medication should be a clinical decision made between patient and physician, not a blanket determination made by a guideline, regulation or committee.

Further, chronic pain is fast becoming undertreated or even untreated, which can have major health consequences. Forcing people to live without good pain management only creates more medical problems. 

For people suffering from opioid use disorder, the addiction myth embodies the idea that it is just accidental chemistry. But as Maia Szalavitz explains in her book Unbroken Brain, addiction has three key components: “The behavior has a psychological purpose; the specific learning pathways involved make it become nearly automatic and compulsive; and it doesn’t stop when it is no longer adaptive.”

The perpetuation of this myth has resulted in people not getting effective care, because the focus is on the substance instead of the sufferer.

“If we don’t invest in people and we focus on drugs, we end up creating another polarizing conversation about substances and people will continue to fall through the cracks,” Dr. Joseph Lee of the Hazelden-Betty Ford Foundation told the Minnesota Post.

The myth of the opioid-addicted chronic pain patient needs to be banished before it causes more people to fall through the cracks.

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.