Don't Forget Chronic Pain Patients During Disasters

By Janice Reynolds, Guest Columnist

With the recent hurricanes in Florida and Texas, there was an Associated Press story you may have seen. 

Titled “Hurricanes Drive Addiction Issues into Public Square,” it dealt with the plight of people addicted to alcohol, tobacco, pills or heroin when disaster strikes.  While the article was not the “yellow press” we often see in the coverage of opioid medication, it did err by the sin of omission.

People with all sorts of health problems suffer during a natural disaster. Not only did the AP story not mention this, I didn’t see it covered elsewhere in the national news.

People living with pain are likely to be the ultimate casualties.  Anxiety and stress increases pain levels, and some pain sufferers will be difficult to evacuate. 

Most critical is the loss of treatment.  If a patient is taking opioids as part of their pain plan, they may not be able to take their medication with them (when leaving in a hurry) and getting a new prescription or even someone willing to fill it would likely be impossible. 

In a shelter, theft would be a worry.  This applies to non-opioid medication as well.  Non-pharmaceutical interventions might also be unavailable.  If pain was already poorly managed -- as it often is -- it would be even worse.

As we know, pain has many harmful side effects that lead to other health emergencies, including suicide. People in pain during a disaster are going to be even more vulnerable than usual.

a hurricane harvey evacuee (texas national guard photo)

a hurricane harvey evacuee (texas national guard photo)

All chronic health problems are affected by natural disasters.  In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, thousands of cancer patients had their treatment disrupted.  Records were lost and many did not know their treatment protocol or where they were in it.  Some did not even know the type of cancer they had.

Of course, medication for other conditions was lost as well. People living with heart conditions, diabetes, kidney failure, AIDS, high blood pressure, COPD, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s and many other chronic health issues need special medications or treatments. For many, pain is a part of their disease as well.

Patients in hospice or nursing homes are especially vulnerable. Eight elderly nursing home residents in Florida died this week in sweltering heat when the facility they were in lost its air conditioning during Hurricane Irma.

The media has an ethical obligation to address the problems of natural disasters related to chronic health problems, especially for chronic pain, and not just limit their concern to addicts.  It is the right thing to do.

Janice Reynolds.jpg

Janice Reynolds is a retired nurse who specialized in pain management, oncology, and palliative care. She has lectured across the country on pain management and co-authored several articles in medical journals. Janice lives with persistent post craniotomy pain and is active with The Pain Community.

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.