An Inconvenient Footnote in the Opioid Crisis

By Roger Chriss, Columnist

The opioid crisis is now a national emergency. President Trump has instructed his administration “to use all appropriate emergency and other authorities to respond to the crisis caused by the opioid epidemic.”

The full strategy is not entirely clear. But so far, prevention, strict regulation and law enforcement are its core features. The Department of Justice recently announced the formation of its new Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit. The DEA has proposed a further reduction in opioid production quotas. And the FDA is working to reduce the flow of illicit fentanyl in the postal service.

Meanwhile, anti-opioid activist groups such as the Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP) are pushing for stricter prescribing regulations and reduced prescribing levels.

As PROP stated in a letter to FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, “Until opioids are prescribed more cautiously it will not be possible to bring the opioid addiction epidemic under control.”

Amid all this, people with persistent pain disorders are little more than an inconvenient footnote.

The evidence clearly shows that the opioid crisis is being driven primarily by illegal drugs. Time magazine reports that in a large national survey, 60% of those who reported misusing opioid medication did so without a prescription. “About 40% of these people accessed opioids free from friends or relatives. Among people who developed addiction or other abuse disorders, 14% said they bought them from drug dealers or strangers," Time said.

Moreover, people who are addicted to heroin rarely get their start with opioids prescribed for a valid medical condition. A study in JAMA Psychiatry found that heroin addicts often have a history of abusing opioid medication because “prescription opioids are much more readily available to younger individuals, particularly as an initial drug of abuse, given the common belief that because prescription opioids are legal, they are considered trustworthy and predictable."

Few media reports mention the strict conditions under which opioids are prescribed in pain contracts between doctors and patients. As described in Pain Medicine News, a “Stipulations of Opioid Treatment Agreement” requires that patients on opioid therapy use only one pharmacy, undergo random urine drug screening, and abstain from alcohol.

Yet all of this goes largely ignored. The narrative of the opioid crisis has been streamlined and simplified to the point that chronic pain patients are either part of the problem, or at least getting in the way of the solution. The CDC guidelines and PROP, as well as state laws and regulations, treat pain patients as an afterthought. We are an inconvenient footnote.

But persistent pain cannot be ignored. Its physical and emotional impact is so costly, that a group of economists recently put a price tag on it.  They estimate that avoiding a single day of chronic pain is worth up $145 for the average person. That works out to nearly $53,000 per year.

This means pain management is extremely valuable to most people.
The pain of connective tissue disorders like Ehlers-Danlos syndrome and other incurable chronic pain conditions like adhesive arachnoiditis can be crippling. People living with these disorders need to have all options on the table because the worst has already happened and they are trying to survive as best as they can.

The Washington state opioid prescribing guideline states that "in carefully selected and monitored patients, opioids may provide effective pain relief if used as part of a comprehensive multimodal pain management strategy. A combination of pharmacologic, non-pharmacologic, and rehabilitative approaches in addition to a strong therapeutic alliance between the older patient and physician is essential to achieve desired treatment outcomes."

That excerpt is from the chapter on “Chronic Pain Management in Special Populations,” a group that arguably should include people with chronic, progressive, or degenerative disorders.

A similar statement from the CDC or even PROP that long-term opioid therapy can be useful for some patients when other pain treatments are ineffective would help keep all pain management options on the table.

We have a chance to stop the worsening crisis of pain mismanagement that is resulting from well-intentioned efforts to address the opioid crisis. A few words added to the CDC guideline or the position statements of groups like PROP could help chronic pain sufferers avoid the perils of being an inconvenient footnote.

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.