Addiction and the 2020 Presidential Race

By Dr. Lynn Webster, PNN Columnist

I found the recent story about Hunter Biden's drug and alcohol problems disturbing, not because he has an addiction — there's no shame in that — but because of the way the media tiptoes around the problem.

There seems be some reluctance to discuss Hunter's problem because of the way it may affect his father – former Vice President Joe Biden – and Biden’s bid for the presidency in 2020. To me, this illustrates a serious barrier to addressing the terrible disease of addiction.

Drugs, Politicians and Their Families

Marijuana is not considered a hard drug today, but it was considered a serious drug of abuse 27 years ago, when President Bill Clinton admitted he had used it. The stigma attached to using marijuana at the time was such that he disingenuously claimed he didn't inhale.

Of course, Clinton wasn't the only president who used or abused chemicals. Nor was he the only president whose reputation took a hit when his drug use was exposed to the public:

President Richard Nixon was reported to have an alcohol problem that worsened as his presidency neared its end.

President George W. Bush reportedly used cocaine in his youth and admitted “drinking too much.” ABC News even polled voters to find out whether his cocaine use might affect their willingness to vote for him.

President Barack Obama admitted that he used marijuana and cocaine. He was also a cigarette smoker with a nicotine addiction, and dealt with media inquiries about his attempts to quit throughout his presidency.

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Hunter Biden is not the only family member of a presidential candidate with addiction.

Jeb Bush's daughter, Noelle Bush, had a drug problem. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s daughter, Chiara de Blasio, abused alcohol and drugs while dealing with depression. Sen. Amy Klobuchar's father has struggled with alcohol his whole life. And President Trump’s brother, Fred Trump, Jr., died of complications related to alcoholism, which contributes to an estimated 88,000 deaths per year.

What Do Candidates Know?

Clearly, the endemic nature of addiction in our culture means that we should be interested in how the candidates deal with the presence of drugs in their lives. Are they able to talk openly about drug use instead of letting it remain a dark and shameful secret? Are they compassionate and supportive of family members who struggle?

To what extent do they personally use drugs and alcohol in daily life? And by extension, how well do they cope with stress? These are relevant, appropriate questions for candidates auditioning for a job that impacts the entire world.

It would be inappropriate to vote for a candidate solely on the basis of whether or not their loved ones struggle with addiction. But one criteria we can use for voting is a candidate’s positions on the critical issue of addiction in America. Here is how I would evaluate a candidate:

1) How much awareness do they demonstrate on the basic issues, including:

  • Do they know the difference in the prevalence of prescription opioid vs. illicit opioid abuse?

  • Do they know that addiction is not determined by the drug, but by genetic and environmental factors?

  • Do they know that the volume of pills prescribed to people in various parts of the country does not determine the number of overdose deaths?

  • Do they know that the prevalence of overdose deaths correlates with the loss of jobs and lack of income opportunity?

2) Will they de-stigmatize the disease of addiction by:

  • Decriminalizing the use of drugs?

  • Acknowledging addiction is a disease?

  • Understanding that babies cannot be born addicted?

  • Educating people that physical dependence and withdrawal can occur without addiction?

3) Do they favor access to substance abuse treatment in a timely fashion for everyone who needs it, regardless of their ability to pay?

4) Will they advocate for people in pain to receive opioid therapy when appropriate at the dose determined by their provider, rather than by the government?

5) Will they acknowledge the unintended consequences of the CDC opioid prescribing guideline?

Shining a Light on Addiction

The ideal candidate should recognize the tragedies associated with all addictions, not just with prescription opioids. He or she must recognize that addiction is part of being human, and that some people are more vulnerable to addiction than others, just as some people are more vulnerable to developing cancer or heart disease.

Whoever becomes or remains our president must shine the light of information on addiction, rather than hide it in the darkness of misinformation, shame and denial. 

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Lynn R. Webster, MD, is a vice president of scientific affairs for PRA Health Sciences and consults with the pharmaceutical industry. He is author of the award-winning book, “The Painful Truth” and co-producer of the documentary, “It Hurts Until You Die.”

You can find him on Twitter: @LynnRWebsterMD.

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.

Misleading CDC Study Links Prescription Opioids to Binge Drinking 

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

A new study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that over half of people who misuse prescription opioids also binge drink, increasing their risk of dying from an overdose.

“We are losing far too many Americans each day from overdoses,” CDC Director Robert Redfield, MD, said in a statement. “Combining alcohol and opioids can significantly increase the risk of overdoses and deaths.”

Binge drinking and misuse of opioid medication are never a good idea, whether done separately or in combination. Unfortunately, the CDC study is written in ways that mislead and further worsen the stigma associated with prescription opioid use. And it fails to acknowledge the role CDC itself has played in the growing use of alcohol for pain relief.

The study, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, is based on survey of over 160,000 people who participated in the National Survey on Drug Use and Health from 2012 to 2014. After analyzing their answers, CDC researchers came to some sweeping conclusions about Americans getting high on pills and alcohol.

“Prescription opioids were responsible for approximately 17,000 deaths in the U.S. in 2016. One in five prescription opioid deaths also involve alcohol,” wrote lead author Marissa Ether, PhD, CDC Division of Population Health.

“More than half of the 4.2 million people who misused prescription opioids during 20122014 were binge drinkers, and binge drinkers had nearly twice the odds of misusing prescription opioids, compared with nondrinkers.”

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The statement that prescription opioids “were responsible” for 17,000 deaths is misleading because it is based on data from death certificates and coroner reports that only indicate the medications were present or “involved” in overdoses. Other substances may have played a role or perhaps even caused those 17,000 deaths.

In 2016, over twice as many fatal overdoses involved heroin and illicit fentanyl, but CDC researchers “did not consider the use of illicit opioids” for their binge drinking study. Apparently, street drug users are teetotalers who do not drink.

And who were the binge drinkers who misused prescription opioids? They were recreational users of opioid medication who did not take the drugs for pain relief. “Misuse” in the study was defined as “use without a prescription or use only for the experience or feeling it causes.”

To be clear, pain patients with legitimate opioid prescriptions that are used appropriately were not included in the study. These patients are actually less likely to be binge drinkers — defined as four or more drinks by a woman, or five or more drinks by a man — and they are warned repeatedly not to mix their medications with alcohol. Including them would have significantly changed the study findings.

Patients Using Alcohol for Pain Relief

Perhaps the biggest oversight by CDC researchers is the 2012-2014 time frame chosen for their study – which is well before the agency released its controversial 2016 opioid prescribing guideline.

One of the key findings from a recent PNN survey of nearly 6,000 patients is that the guideline has limited their access to prescription opioids so severely that some are turning to alcohol for pain relief. Nearly one out of five patients surveyed said they had used alcohol for pain relief since the guideline came out.

“It has caused many pain patients to be cut off their pain medication,” one patient told us. “After losing my meds 16 months ago, I just started using alcohol and I never used alcohol. I don't like alcohol, but what are my options?” 

“Since my doctor stopped prescribing even my small amount of opioids I deal with days where I can’t even get out of bed because I hurt so much and I’m stuck turning to alcohol, excessive amounts of acetaminophen and NSAIDs,” another patient said. 

“The CDC guidelines are killing people,” one woman wrote. “My fiancé has been refused even the most mild stenosis treatment because he admitted using alcohol to treat his pain when he has no other treatment. He's mildly suicidal as well. We have two young kids.” 

“I lost a good friend to suicide because she was not able to get pain medications to relieve her pain and it was too much for her to handle,” a patient said. “Sadly, she is not the only one. I'm hearing about more and more. I'm also hearing about people turning towards alcohol.” 

“All they are doing is pushing chronic pain patients to find relief in other ways such as alcohol, illicit drugs or harming themselves to get the pain relief they do desperately seek,” wrote another patient. 

In other words, alcohol use is acceptable to the CDC — as long as it is not combined with prescribed opioid medication. This is your nation’s health protection agency at work.

Study: Alcohol Relieves Fibromyalgia Pain

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Another study is adding to a growing body of evidence that alcohol is an effective – yet risky – way to treat chronic pain.

Researchers at the University of Michigan surveyed over 2,500 patients being treated at a university pain clinic about their drinking habits, pain severity and physical function. Participants were also assessed for signs of depression and anxiety. About a third of the patients were diagnosed with fibromyalgia (FM), a poorly understood disorder characterized by widespread body pain, fatigue, insomnia, headaches and mood swings.

Researchers, who recently published their study in the journal Pain Medicine, found that patients who were moderate drinkers had less pain and other symptoms than those who did not drink alcohol.

“Female and male chronic pain patients who drink no more than 7 and 14 alcoholic drinks per week, respectively, reported significantly lower FM symptoms, pain severity, pain-related interference in activities, depression, anxiety and catastrophizing, and higher physical function,” said lead author Ryan Scott, MPH, of UM’s Chronic Pain and Fatigue Research Center.

“These findings suggest that chronic pain patients with a lesser degree of pain centralization may benefit most from low-risk, moderate alcohol consumption.”

According to the Mayo Clinic, moderate alcohol consumption for healthy adults means up to one drink a day for women of all ages and men older than age 65, and up to two drinks a day for men age 65 and younger.

Of the study participants, over half reported use of opioid medication, which carries serious risks when combined with alcohol. Perhaps for that reason, participants in the UM study drank less alcohol than the general population.

“People with chronic pain may drink less due to the stigma and because they are being told not to drink while on pain medication,” says Scott.

Moderate drinkers with chronic pain were more likely to be white, have an advanced degree and were less likely to use opioids. They reported less pain, lower anxiety and depression, and higher physical function.

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Researchers found that fibromyalgia patients who drank moderately reported decreased pain severity and depression, but alcohol had no effect on how widespread their pain was or other symptoms such as cramps, headache, fatigue, poor sleep and cognitive dysfunction.

Scott believes alcohol may stimulate the production of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter in the central nervous system that reduces nerve activity. Alcohol and drugs such as gabapentin (Neurontin) that act on GABA typically have relaxing effects.

“Alcohol increases gamma-aminobutyric acid in the brain, which is why we could be seeing some of the psychiatric effects. Even though alcohol helped some fibromyalgia patients, it didn’t have the same level of effect,” said Scott. “You probably need much more GABA to block pain signals and that may be why we’re not seeing as high an effect in these patients.”

Over a dozen previous studies have also found that alcohol is an effective pain reliever. In a 2017 review published in the Journal of Pain, British researchers found “robust evidence” that alcohol acts as an analgesic.

“It could be a stepping stone to increased quality of life, leading to more social interactions,” says Scott. “Fibromyalgia patients in particular have a lot of psychological trauma, anxiety and catastrophizing, and allowing for the occasional drink might increase social habits and overall health.”

A History Lesson of the War on Drugs

By Iris Erlingsdottir, Guest Columnist

One hundred years ago this month, the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, prohibiting the production, transport and sale of "intoxicating liquors.” It cleared the way for the Volstead Act, which declared that liquor, wine and beer all qualified as intoxicating liquors.

Prohibition – the first War on Drugs -- was on.

The U.S. government has never been above abusing its citizens in the name of fighting drug wars. Then, like now, government efforts to legislate the human condition were a losing, deadly battle. In today’s war against opioid addiction, it is patients on the receiving end. A century ago it was drinkers.

Alcohol deaths only increased during Prohibition, as Deborah Blum recounts in her 2010 book, “The Poisoner’s Handbook.”

Policymakers believed poisoning the alcohol supply was an acceptable way to stop people from drinking. Methanol was added to industrial alcohol to make it unfit for human consumption, but bootleggers found ways to distill the poisoned alcohol to make it drinkable.

The government responded by adding even more toxic chemicals, like gasoline and kerosene. And bootleggers kept stealing the increasingly dangerous alcohol and turning it into liquor.

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At the start of Prohibition, New York City’s Bellevue Hospital treated about twelve annual cases of moonshine and wood alcohol poisoning. About a fourth of those were fatal. By 1926, the hospital treated 716 people for blindness and paralysis due to poisoned alcohol. The holiday season that year was especially deadly. On Christmas Day alone, 60 people were treated at Bellevue for alcohol poisoning and eight died from it. By New Year’s Day 1927, 41 people were dead.

Prohibition-era statistics are notoriously unreliable, but according to some estimates over 10,000 Americans died during Prohibition from the effects of drinking poisoned liquor, courtesy of both government and organized crime chemists. Many more were blinded. Prohibition’s attempt to foster temperance instead fostered intemperance, along with violence and crime. The solution the government had concocted to address alcohol abuse had made the problem worse.

Act of Betrayal

“There is no Prohibition,” New York City medical examiner Charles Norris said in an angry report about the alcohol deaths. “All the people who drank before Prohibition are drinking now — provided they’re still alive.”

Norris and his staff considered the government’s deliberate poisoning of alcohol an “act of betrayal.” They weren’t accustomed to having their national government adopt a policy known to kill people.

Policymakers in the 21st century have few such qualms about the opioid crisis. Nor does the media, which continues to parrot the government’s blatantly misleading propaganda, blaming illicit fentanyl and heroin deaths on prescription opioids.  Just as thousands died from alcohol poisoning during Prohibition, opioid hysteria has had horrible consequences for millions of patients doomed to suffer torturous pain because of irresponsible journalism and the policy blunders it enables.

Many of the nation’s largest Prohibition-era newspapers, however, didn’t hesitate to condemn a government policy “gone haywire.”

“Prohibition in this area is a complete failure,” the New York Herald Tribune’s editorial page declared, “enforcement a travesty, the public a victim of poisonous liquor.”  The Evening World said no administration had been more successful in “undermining the health of its own people,” while The St. Paul Pioneer Press called the government an “accessory to murder.”

Perhaps the Chicago Tribune stated it best: “It is only in the curious fanaticism of Prohibition that any means, however barbarous, are considered justified.”

It’s a sentiment that applies just as aptly to today’s epidemic of opioid hysteria.

Íris Erlingsdóttir is an Icelandic journalist and writer who lives in Minnesota. Iris has a rare, untreatable arthritic condition that causes severe pain and progressive destruction of the joints. She became an advocate for pain patients’ rights after being denied continued opioid pain medication.

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.

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Do You Use Alcohol to Relieve Chronic Pain?

By Rochelle Odell, Columnist

I’m in a Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS/RSD) support group and one of our members recently asked if any members were turning to alcohol because their pain medication had been reduced or stopped.

It piqued my interest, so I began researching the topic. There aren’t many current studies or reports, but it’s a valid question since alcohol is much easier to obtain than pain medication.

Alcohol was among the earliest substances used to relieve physical pain and, of course, many people use it to cope with emotional pain.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, as many as 28% of people with chronic pain turn to alcohol to alleviate their suffering.

Another study from 2009 found that about 25% of patients self-medicated with alcohol for tooth pain, jaw pain or arthritis pain.

There is no documented increase in alcohol use by chronic pain patients at this time, although I would hope there are studies in process that further clarify the question and problems arising from it -- especially with opioid pain medication being reined in and so many patients left with nothing to relieve their pain.

There are many reasons why a person may self-medicate with alcohol.

“People have been using alcohol to help cope with chronic pain for many years. Many people also may use alcohol as a way to manage stress, and chronic pain often can be a significant stressor,” Jonas Bromberg, PsyD, wrote in PainAction.

“One theory about why alcohol may be used to manage chronic pain is because it affects the central nervous system in a way that may result in a mild amount of pain reduction. However, medical experts are quick to point out that alcohol has no direct pain-relieving value, even if the short-term affects provide some amount of temporary relief. In fact, using alcohol as a way to relieve pain can cause significant problems, especially in cases of excessive use, or when it is used with pain medication.”

Constant, unrelenting pain is definitely a stressor -- that's putting it mildly -- but I’ve never added alcohol to my pain medication regimen. I was always afraid of the possible deadly side effects, coupled with the fact my mother was an alcoholic who mixed her medication with it. That's a path I have chosen not to go down.

Bromberg also tells us that men may be more likely to use alcohol for pain relief than women, and people with higher income also tend to use alcohol more to treat their chronic pain.

Interestingly, the use of alcohol is usually not related to how intense a person’s pain is or how long they’ve had it. It was the regularity of pain symptoms – chronic pain -- that seemed most related to alcohol use, according to Bromberg.

Those who self-medicate with alcohol for physical or emotional pain often use it with a variety of substances, both legal and illegal.

Researchers at Boston University School of Medicine and Boston Medical Center reported last year in the Journal of General Internal Medicine that in a study of nearly 600 patients who screened positive for illicit drugs, nearly 90 percent had chronic pain. Over half of them used marijuana, cocaine or heroin, and about half reported heavy drinking.

“It was common for patients to attribute their substance use to treating symptoms of pain,” the researchers reported. “Among those with any recent heavy alcohol use, over one-third drank to treat their pain, compared to over three-quarters of those who met the criteria for current high-risk alcohol use.”

“Substance use” (not abuse) was defined as use of illegal drugs, misuse of prescription drugs, or high risk alcohol use. I had not heard of this term before, it’s usually called substance abuse.  Perhaps these researchers were onto something really important that needs further study, particularly with opioid medication under fire.

“While the association between chronic pain and drug addiction has been observed in prior studies, this study goes one step further to quantify how many of these patient are using these substances specifically to treat chronic pain," they added.

What this information shows is that if one is on pain medication, using alcohol or an illegal substance does not make one unique. It is certainly not safe, but it does occur. We are all struggling to find ways to cope with chronic pain, and if someone is denied one substance they are at high risk of turning to another.

Rochelle Odell lives in California. She’s lived for nearly 25 years with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS/RSD).

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.

6 Reasons Opioids Get More Attention Than Alcohol

By Janice Reynolds, Guest Columnist

Every day we hear how the “opioid crisis” is spiraling out of control.  Some even claim it is the worst health crisis to ever hit our country.  The response has largely been to restrict access to opioid pain medications and to sue the pharmaceutical companies that produce them.

But what is the real crisis? The elephant in the room that everyone conveniently ignores?

I believe opioids are being used to cover-up and distract from the real addiction crisis, which is alcohol abuse. 

Alcoholic beverages have been with us for thousands of years and are an important part of everyday life. Alcohol consumption has been increasing in the U.S. since the late 1990's and today about 57 percent of Americans drink alcohol at least once monthly, far more than consume opioids. Drinking to excess is usually frowned upon, but has long been treated as socially acceptable, even by the Puritans:

Drink is in itself a good creature of God, and to be received with thankfulness, but the abuse of drink is from Satan, the wine is from God, but the Drunkard is from the Devil.                                                                                                                                                        --  Increase Mather, Puritan clergyman in “Wo to Drunkards” (1673)

Alcohol is the fourth leading cause of preventable death in the in the United States. In 2015, over 30,000 Americans died directly from alcohol induced cases, such as alcohol poisoning and cirrhosis of the liver. 

There are another 88,000 deaths annually from alcohol related causes, including motor vehicle accidents, homicide, suicide, and incidents of poor judgement – such as going out in subzero weather and freezing to death, and infants dying after being left in hot cars by drunk fathers.

Many harms also occur that usually do not result in death, such as alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape, fetal alcohol syndrome, and fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. The World Health Organization reports that alcohol contributes to more than 200 diseases and injury-related health conditions, including alcohol dependence, cirrhosis, cancers, and injuries.

So why is alcohol ignored and the so-called opioid epidemic is hyped? Here are six reasons:

1) Many people drink alcohol. They may only drink “socially” and need a glass of wine or beer to relax, enjoy a sporting event or socialize at a party. Alcoholic beverages are an integral part of mealtime for many people.   

We also have functional alcoholics who are secret addicts.  As a nurse for over 20 years, it was not uncommon for me to have a patient begin to go through withdrawal after 48 hours in the hospital. Usually they deny drinking alcohol or admit to one drink a night. There is also denial by the medical profession about the dangers posed by alcohol, such as addiction specialists who differentiate between heavy drinkers and alcoholics.

Research frequently ignores alcohol entirely. A recent study looked at health conditions linked to Alzheimer’s disease and mentioned obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes and depression. Alcohol was not even considered, even though it has been shown in valid studies to damage brain cells.

2) Alcohol is BIG business.  Profits are immense and generate tax revenue.  Profits for breweries, distilleries and related businesses far outstrip what pharmaceutical companies make from opioids.  We see these monies going not only to shareholders, but government, lobbyists and advertising.

No one complains about a full-page newspaper ad for a brand of vodka, but a commercial during the Super Bowl for medication to treat opioid induced constipation sparks outrage. And no one bats an eye when a story about Maine liquor stores dropping the price of hard liquor is on the same front page with another article on the opioid crisis.

When have you ever seen a stadium named after an opioid or even a pharmaceutical company? Yet we have Coors Field in Denver, Busch Stadium in Saint Louis, and Miller Park in Milwaukee.

3) Problems need scapegoats. In this case we have two scapegoats: people in pain and opioids.  

Prejudices against people in pain have long existed: “It’s all in your head” or “the pain can’t be that bad” are all too familiar. It could also be simple bigotry towards someone different or a lack of compassion. We used to call pain management “an art and a science,” now it is optional and politically driven medicine.

Opiophobia has a long history as well; fear of addiction, fear of respiratory depression, belief that opioids don’t work, and that people in pain are drug seekers. The “opioid epidemic” has opened the gateway for uncontrollable and irrational bigots.

Nearly all the interventions to curb drug overdoses have been directed at people in pain, who are not responsible for the illegal use of opioids. If all prescription opioids disappeared tomorrow, it would have nil effect on the opioid crisis. Addicts would just turn to heroin and illegal fentanyl (if they haven’t already). There are a boatload of ways to get high.

4) McCarthyism: In the 1950’s, Senator Joseph McCarthy went hunting for communists and many lives were ruined. Today, the term “McCarthyism” defines a campaign or practice that uses unfair and reckless allegations, as well as guilt by association. 

Politicians, the media and many doctors are afraid to say anything not endorsing the “opioid epidemic” or supporting people in pain, because it will be held against them.

5) Fear-mongering:  The spread of frightening and exaggerated rumors of an impending danger that purposely and needlessly arouses public fear.

We can see this in the psychological manipulation that uses scare tactics, exaggeration and repetition to influence public attitudes about opioids. This is exactly what Andrew Kolodny and Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP) are doing, along with formally reputable organizations such as the Food and Drug Administration and professional medical associations.

6) The alphabet soup: The CDC, DEA, and the bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) have all played a part in distracting us from alcohol abuse.  Although it is a drug, alcohol is not usually covered by the DEA, but is handled by the ATF, which mainly concerns itself with alcohol licensing and collecting alcohol taxes.

The DEA has been totally helpless to stop the influx of illegal opioids like heroin and illicit fentanyl, as well as thediversion of prescription medications. Their survival mechanism is to go after the legitimate use of opioids for pain.  They have become a terrorist organization that is driving providers out of pain management.

In order to cover-up the heavy cost of alcohol abuse, we have seen hysteria driven by politicians and the media. This has resulted in difficulty getting opioids prescribed for pain, skewered facts to support the “opioid epidemic,” the CDC’s opioid guidelines, and what I call the passive genocide of people in pain.

There are many different means by which genocide can be achieved and not all have to be active (murder or deportation). For our usage, genocide means “the promotion and execution of policies by a state or its agents which result in the deaths (real and figuratively) of a substantial portion of a group.” 

Our genocide is passive because it relies on the harmful effects of pain, suicide, withdrawal of treatment, excessive use of over-the-counter pain relievers, malpractice, and the total dismissal of the human rights of people with pain; as well as lies and falsehoods being held as truths to promote this genocide.

This is not to say that alcohol should be made illegal. Prohibition did not work because most people wanted alcohol and it lead to a huge criminal enterprise. It is to say prescription opioids should not be treated differently than other medications or alcohol.  And people in pain should not be used to further an agenda based on fallacious, unethical and immoral sensationalism. 

Janice Reynolds is a retired nurse who specialized in pain management, oncology, and palliative care. She has lectured across the country at medical conferences on different aspects of pain and pain management, and is co-author of several articles in peer reviewed journals. 

Janice has lived with persistent post craniotomy pain since 2009.  She is active with The Pain Community and writes several blogs for them, including a regular one on cooking with pain. 

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.

Study Finds Alcohol Risky but Effective Pain Reliever

By Pat Anson, Editor

The dangers of alcohol are well known – from drunk driving to health, work and social problems. But with opioid painkillers becoming harder to obtain, some chronic pain sufferers are turning to alcohol to dull their pain.

And now there’s research to back them up.

In an analysis of 18 studies published in the Journal of Pain, British researchers found “robust evidence” that a few drinks can be an effective pain reliever.

“Findings suggest that alcohol is an effective analgesic that delivers clinically-relevant reductions in ratings of pain intensity, which could explain alcohol misuse in those with persistent pain despite its potential consequences for long-term health,” wrote lead author Trevor Thompson, PhD, University of Greenwich.

Thompson and his colleagues say a blood-alcohol content of .08% -- which meets the legal definition of drunk driving in many U.S. states – produces a “moderate to large reduction in pain intensity” and a small elevation in pain threshold.

“It can be compared to opioid drugs such as codeine and the effect is more powerful than paracetamol (acetaminophen),” Thompson told The Sun newspaper.  “If we can make a drug without the harmful side effects then we could have something that is potentially better than what is out there at the moment.”

Despite the risks involved, some pain sufferers are turning to alcohol as a last resort and mixing it with pain relievers – a potentially lethal combination.

“My doctor took me off all opioids last year and put me on Effexor, Naproxen, and extended relief Tylenol. It barely touches my pain so I am also drinking each night to help dull the pain,” one patient told us.

“The doctor tried gabapentin but I ended up with an overnight stay in the hospital due to a bad reaction to the medication,” another patient said. “I'm now using alcohol nightly to help me sleep along with high amounts of Naproxen and Tylenol daily.”

“I suffer extreme back and neck pain. Since they no longer prescribed painkillers I started drinking and find it is helpful. I take also thousand mg of arthritis Tylenol every day,” wrote another patient.  “It's either suicide or drinking. Frankly I'd prefer death. Too bad they can't give painkillers anymore.”

How much is too much?

According to the Mayo Clinic, moderate alcohol consumption for healthy adults means up to one drink a day for women of all ages and men older than age 65, and up to two drinks a day for men age 65 and younger.