Pain Patients Tired of Being Labeled as Addicts

By Pat Anson, Editor

If there’s one thing that gets a pain patient frustrated or angry, it’s being labeled as an addict or a “drug seeker” in search of opioids.  So imagine hearing that from a doctor or nurse at a hospital where you’ve gone for treatment because your pain is out of control or unbearable.

But it happens all the time.

“I refuse to go to the ER for pain. Unless I feel I'm absolutely dying, I will not go. It isn't worth being made to feel like I'm only ‘putting on a show’ or I'm a junkie just trying to get high,” one pain sufferer told us. “In every situation I've experienced in going to the ER with a complaint (of) pain, I've been made to feel less than human and was automatically met with suspicion.”

“I was screamed at and humiliated by the front desk nurse in front of a whole lobby of people for having pain and no medication or treatment. Had nowhere to go and didn’t know what else to do. She was so angry at me, I was shocked. I couldn’t believe it,” said another pain patent.

“My husband experienced a ruptured appendix at home,” wrote one woman. “His hospital experience was a nightmare! I had to stay at the hospital 24/7 just to make sure that his pain was kept under control. He was ridiculed, humiliated and not believed to the point that he was ready to walk out.”

Those are some of the typical responses we received in a survey of over 1,250 acute and chronic pain patients by Pain News Network and the International Pain Foundation (IPain).  Nearly three out four patients surveyed said they currently take an opioid pain medication.

When asked if they ever felt labeled as an addict or drug seeker by hospital staff, nearly half (46%) said they often were and over a third (34%) said it happens sometimes. Only 20% of pain patents said they had not been labeled.

“I was treated like a drug seeker and humiliated in front of the staff and patients. This has happened several times,” wrote one pain sufferer.

“I was insulted, berated, and humiliated by hospital staff while seeking help for my chronic pain conditions,” said another.


“I have panic attacks about going to the hospital because I have been treated so badly,” wrote one woman. “I've heard nurses say, ‘She's only here for the free meds.’ I've had nurses and doctors yell at me when I explain my pain symptoms and ask for something simple like a pillow, or an IV in a different spot. I've been told, ‘You’re in a hospital. You are supposed to be uncomfortable!’”

“Doctors have called me a liar when it comes to why I have previously been in the ER or hospital. I have been told I am no better than a street addict,” wrote a patient who has pancreatitis and lupus.

“The nurses that treated me saw on the state Rx monitoring website I was taking opioids (although I had already told them). They shut the curtain and told me to take a nap! I was not seen by a doctor and was told I was a drug seeker,” wrote a patient who was seeking treatment for abdominal pain. “I got up and left and a couple weeks later was diagnosed with diverticulitis and a serious infection that could have killed me. I had 2 1/2 feet of my intestine taken out.”

Asked if doctors were reluctant to give them opioid pain medication while they were hospitalized, 38% of pain patients said it happens often and 36% said sometimes. Only 26% said no.

“I had a doctor in an emergency room situation one time during an episode I was having, who actually stood in the open doorway of my room, I was still in the ER, and yelled at me as loud as he could, that he wasn't giving me any pain medicine,” said one patient.

“I understand why opioids are scary to prescribe and I do understand that there are a lot of people just looking to get high. But doctors and hospitals discriminate (against) all of us with real medical problems and it’s inhumane,” wrote another.


“The nurses and doctors need to understand the difference between the 98% who are not drug seeking and be able to address the patients’ needs who present in front of them,” said Barby Ingle, president of IPain.  “Treatment based on misconceptions and poor pain understanding is not ethical or appropriate. We must create policies that support the pain patient and their individual needs.”

Even patients who do not take opioid medication said they were labeled as addicts or drug seekers --  just as often as those who take opioids.

“I am really sick of being looked at as if I am there for dope meds. Not all of us is addictive or crazy about pain meds,” wrote one patient.

“I am not a bad person. I am sick. I did not do this to myself, it was done to me in childhood trauma. I was abused, please don't abuse me more,” pleaded another patient.

“Everyone needs to be treated with compassion, respect, and have their concerns listened to. This is not happening. We need to start holding people accountable for how they treat people in pain,” says Janice Reynolds, a pain sufferer and retired palliative care nurse.

“I would encourage everyone when you have been to the ER or in the hospital to write a letter to the CEO of the hospital, the vice president of nursing, and the medical and nursing managers of the department you were in.  Tell them how you were treated, how they made you feel, what happened that didn’t work, and try to get names and write them down.  Do this for good treatment as well as bad treatment,” Reynolds wrote in an email Pain News Network.

“I have actually done this and while one letter may not be effective, you are a costumer and if they get several letters they may start seeing there is a problem.  I know at the hospital I worked at, we were always told about a positive or negative comment which mentioned us by name.”

Another way to lodge a complaint – or compliment – is in patient satisfaction surveys, which Medicare requires hospitals to conduct to prove they provide quality care. Medicare rewards hospitals that are rated highly by patients, while penalizing those who do not. 

However, Maine Sen. Susan Collins (R) and 25 of her colleagues in the U.S. Senate have sent a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell asking that Medicare stop asking patients about their pain care because that could lead to opioid overprescribing.

“We are concerned that the current evaluation system may inappropriately penalize hospitals and pressure physicians who, in the exercise of medical judgment, opt to limit opioid pain relievers to certain patients and instead reward those who prescribe opioids more frequently,” the letter states.

Pain patients say that’s nonsense. When we asked if patients should still be asked about their pain care in hospital satisfaction surveys, over 92% said yes and less than 3% said no.

“I find this notion that we would stop asking patients how well their pain was controlled in the hospital appalling,” said Cindy Steinberg, National Director of Policy and Advocacy for the U.S. Pain Foundation. “Dropping these questions from the Medicare survey sends the message that pain relief is no longer part of a quality-of-care measure that hospital staff need be concerned about. Controlling patients’ pain is just not that important any more.  Is this really where we want to go?


“We have moved from the war on drugs to the war on pain patients and now to the war on the very concept of appropriately treating pain.  This is a shameful perspective that condones a cavalier and uncaring attitude toward the pain and suffering of fellow human beings.  I wonder what the Senators who signed this letter would say about the responsibility for doctors and nurses in hospitals to relieve pain if it was their loved ones or themselves who was experiencing unrelieved pain in the hospital?”

A request to Sen. Collins’ office for an interview or statement on the survey findings went unanswered.

To see the complete survey results, click here.

Tomorrow we'll see how pain patients feel about non-opioid medications and whether they are effective in providing pain relief.

Law Enforcement and Pain Patients

By John Burke, Guest Columnist

I first need to tell you that I spent 48 years in law enforcement and recently retired in 2015 after commanding a large enforcement initiative in southwestern Ohio. I have extensive experience in  prescription drug abuse as it pertains to law enforcement and have written a monthly article for the past 15 years in Pharmacy Times magazine on the topic of drug diversion.

I am the past national president of the National Association of Drug Diversion Investigators and current president of the International Health Facility Diversion Association. In short, I am no stranger to the issues surrounding the abuse and diversion of pharmaceuticals.

I am also a self-declared pain patient advocate who strongly believes that the vast majority of controlled substances that are consumed in the U.S. are taken by legitimate pain patients.  Pain patients have no real lobbying group that can apply pressure on politicians – who are often oblivious to the plight of pain patients as they scramble to get reelected!

In 1990, I was fortunate enough to be assigned to form and command the Cincinnati Police Department’s Pharmaceutical Diversion Unit (PDU). In the early 1970’s I had seen prescription drug abuse on the streets and knew that it was a much bigger problem than was being hailed by the news media. In starting PDU, I made a point to try and educate the media on the subject, and we were very successful in doing that as it was a brand new issue as far as they knew and they flocked to our press conferences.



In addition to the arrests, we provided community education on prescription drug abuse, but sadly we said very little about a victim I got to know well -- the chronic pain patient. I can’t honestly say that pain patients entered my mind in those days, as we stayed focused on those illegally diverting pharmaceuticals. We also specialized on the diversion of medications inside healthcare facilities, a huge problem that exists still today.

We entered a time in the 1990’s when pain patients were deemed to be undertreated, new opioid medications were developed and marketed, and as we entered the 21st century, pain pill abuse started to skyrocket. Most of this century has seen a concentration on pharmaceutical diversion issues, with the spotlight on OxyContin until Purdue Pharma successfully marketed an abuse deterrent formulation in 2010. Since then, heroin has exploded onto the illicit drug scene, accelerating the overdose death rate as even the smallest of communities cry for help.

I saw a chronic pain patient up close and personal about 10 years ago. She was my mother-in-law and she came to live with my wife and I in our home. She had been a pain patient since elementary school. Her leg was permanently fused together and over the years she fought doctors who insisted that amputation was the best route to take for her welfare.

One day, her husband came to me and said that his wife was experiencing a particularly bad time with her pain relief and was moaning most of the night, unable to sleep. Since I had participated in dozens of continuing education programs with renowned pain specialists, I did know a little about pain management -- at least enough to ask if they had told her doctor so that her pain medication could be adjusted.

The answer was that she doesn’t take any pain medication due to the fact that her former doctor, several decades deceased, had told her never to take anything stronger than an aspirin or she would get addicted! I was shocked at this and advised him to go back to her current doctor and request some pain medication for a person who had suffered with daily pain for over 60 years at this point.

Her young physician told her that she was unable to prescribe a controlled substance, something that was blatantly false, but was nonetheless a reality for this almost lifetime pain patient. I then assisted them in finding a pain specialist and after one visit she was prescribed a pain patch and immediately started using something she should have had access to years before.

Her relief was incredible. Although not pain free by any means, she came crying to me that it was by far the most significant pain relief she had ever had in her life. No doubt it was, when aspirin was the only analgesic she was taking for chronic pain. This pain had flourished for decades due to the advice of a well-intentioned, but misinformed physician, who warned her about addiction issues when her pain was becoming unbearable.

I offer no apologies for the aggressive prosecutions of criminal doctors and those who prey on drug addicts by prescribing or dispensing controlled substances merely to line their pockets rather than to provide quality pain care. These people had no intention to provide pain relief to patients, and in the end did great damage to legitimate patients by giving the public the erroneous thought that virtually all people on pain meds are nothing more than addicts!

Every presentation I give, I make it a point to remind the audience that the vast majority of pain medications are prescribed by competent caring prescribers, dispensed by caring pharmacists, and end up in the hands of those who desperately need these drugs to perform every day functions we take for granted.

Right now there is incredible pressure by uninformed politicians to suggest some drastic changes in how opioids are prescribed and dispensed in this country. Law enforcement has plenty of good laws to go after the outliers vigorously, and I strongly urge we continue to do that, but with the full realization that the plight of pain patients’ needs to be protected in the meantime. Balance is important in most things in life and this issue is certainly no exception.

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.