Opioid Hysteria Has Gone Too Far

By Lisa Kehrberg, MD, Guest Columnist

I’m a 43-year-old physician who retired due to illness at the age of 39. I have a rare genetic disease called acute intermittent porphyria (AIP), an extremely painful and disabling condition.

Due to an enzyme deficiency, AIP causes toxins to buildup in the liver. The symptoms of porphyria are primarily neurological with the most notable being abdominal pain -- a burning sensation that is almost unbearable. The pain is similar to what I’d imagine it would feel like to have a blowtorch placed against my stomach and back.

Acute porphyria also causes peripheral neuropathy in the hands and feet. Along with the pain comes severe nausea, vomiting, headaches, fatigue, muscle weakness, motor neuropathy, and fluctuations in blood pressure and pulse. About 10 percent of AIP patients have a severe form of the disease referred to as “high excreter, recurrent attacks.”

Unfortunately, I am in that 10 percent.

Initially, I only had monthly attacks lasting 3-5 days, starting in my teenage years. Somehow, I managed to complete my education and training and became a physician despite that.

I was not finally diagnosed with AIP until the age of 39, when I suffered a life-threatening porphyria attack. It was almost too late for me at that point, as the attack was so severe that I was no longer able to work or do much at all. There is a one percent mortality rate during each AIP attack and I’ve had hundreds of them, so I’ve been lucky.

My older brother died unexpectedly at the age of 39. Genetic testing of autopsy samples later determined he had the same AIP gene mutation as I have. He died prior to my diagnosis and his gene mutation was discovered as I lay in a hospital bed being told my diagnosis.

 LISA KEHRBERG, MD

LISA KEHRBERG, MD

At first, I felt such strong relief that my life was saved and sadness for my brother. But as the months passed, and I became sicker and more in pain, I started feeling a bit jealous of my brother. He was able to at least die with some dignity and is no longer suffering.

The pain that I experience is severe and the only thing effective enough to bring it down to tolerable levels is opioid medication. I’ve tried everything possible. Pain is a subjective experience and only the person experiencing it can know the severity and what helps to improve it.

I have difficulty understanding the response from some in the medical community, government, media and general public, who are so focused on “opioid addiction” that they are unable to see patients like me and empathize with us.

The media’s response has been extremely damaging. It seems people do not understand that addiction is a separate issue from pain management. Why is it that every time prescription pain medication is discussed, it's only in reference to addiction and the opioid epidemic? What about people like me who live with a life-threatening and severely painful disease? Not many reporters seem interested in that side of the story.

I have watched now as countless pain patients have taken their own lives due to discontinuation of their pain medication, often without any warning or consent. Physicians are not the problem in this. Physicians want to help patients. Physicians are being misled, brainwashed and even punished into thinking that prescription opioids usually lead to addiction.

Fortunately for patients like me, palliative care is a growing field and I’m so appreciative of my palliative care physician. I’m frightened for the future, not only for myself, but really for everyone. Pain affects everybody at some point in their lives. Whether it’s you, a family member or a friend -- pain will be there.

Everybody should be afraid of the direction where things are going. Even cancer patients at end of life are being denied appropriate pain treatments. Insurance companies are denying coverage for pain medications and getting away with it. I encourage everyone to please use common sense in this climate where the pendulum has swung too far in the wrong direction.

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Lisa Kehrberg, MD, is a retired family practice physician who specialized in pain management. You can read more about Lisa at the American Porphyria Foundation’s website.

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.