Should Roseanne Have Died From an Opioid Overdose?

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Roseanne Barr is the latest victim of America's opioid crisis. Or to be more precise, Roseanne Conner is.

The fictional matriarch of ABC’s cancelled “Roseanne” show was killed off in the opening episode of “The Conners” Tuesday night, with her family struggling to come to terms with her death. What was initially thought to be a fatal heart attack turns out to be an accidental overdose of prescription opioids.

TV audiences had last seen Roseanne Conner hiding her addiction to opioid painkillers while waiting for long-delayed and costly knee surgery. But that storyline ended when Roseanne Barr was fired by ABC for a racist tweet and the network had to come up with a way to explain her absence.

“We firmly decided against anything cowardly or far-fetched, anything that would make the fierce matriarch of the Conners seem pathetic or debased,” Executive Producer Bruce Helford explained in The Hollywood Reporter.

“I wanted a respectful sendoff for her, too: one that was relevant and could inspire discussion for the greater good about the American working class, whose authentic problems are often ignored by broadcast television.”

ABC

ABC

"I AIN'T DEAD BITCHES," Barr tweeted after watching the show. She followed up with a longer joint statement with her spiritual advisor, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach.

“We regret that ABC chose to cancel 'Roseanne' by killing off the Roseanne Conner character,” the statement said. "That it was done through an opioid overdose lent an unnecessary grim and morbid dimension to an otherwise happy family show.”

It was also a bit of a cliché. The popular perception that most opioid overdoses are due to prescription painkillers is now largely a myth.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 49,000 Americans died from opioid overdoses in 2017, but over half of them were due to illicit fentanyl and heroin, not prescription opioids.

A more accurate way to depict Roseanne’s death would have been through an overdose of heroin or counterfeit painkillers laced with fentanyl. That’s how thousands of Americans are dying. Roseanne Conner could have even been driven to suicide by untreated pain. Imagine what an eye-opening show that would have been.

Instead, the Conner family discovers that Roseanne was hiding painkillers all over the house and sharing them with a group of friends, all of them struggling with pain and addiction. The show makes it appear like opioid medication is easy to obtain, something real pain patients know is no longer true.

The only thing missing from the hackneyed script was someone saying, “If only Roseanne had tried yoga and taken Tylenol, she’d still be alive!”

Executive producer Bruce Rasmussen told Variety last week they thought carefully about how to end Roseanne's character. "You don't want to be flip about how you do this," said Rasmussen.

But that’s exactly how it came across to some PNN readers.

“The media can't seem to get the other side of the story out, nor can they print the truth about exactly how many deaths are the result of PRESCRIPTION opiates,” wrote Stephen Johnston.  “Now millions of folks will be watching as more gas is poured onto the fire. That same fire that's burning up what's left of people like myself and millions of others for whom opiate pain medications are the only relief from whatever traumatic accident or terrible malady has befallen them.”

“It was bad enough when they made pain meds a focus of the rebooted show when the first episode of the show's return aired. Now we have the added stigma, as intractable pain people, of them choosing to have Roseanne die from opioid misuse,” said Jack.

“Don't give the writers, actors, producer, the network hacks, etc., anything that isn't OTC when they have occasion to need pain relief — chronic or acute. Tylenol 3's would be much too generous, as many of us don't even get those.”

You can watch the first episode of “The Conners” by clicking here.

Overdose Crisis Began 40 Years Ago

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

The overdose crisis in the United States began long before a spike in opioid prescribing and is likely to last for many more years, according to a new study published in Science magazine.

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health looked at nearly 600,000 poisoning deaths in the U.S. from 1979 to 2016 and found a steadily rising number of overdoses caused by “subepidemics” of different drugs, including heroin, cocaine, illicit fentanyl, methamphetamine and prescription opioids. As each subepidemic rose and fell, the drug fueling it was replaced by another substance that can be abused.

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“The epidemic of drug overdoses in the United States has been inexorably tracking along an exponential growth curve since at least 1979, well before the surge in opioid prescribing in the mid-1990s,” said senior author Donald Burke, MD, Pitt Public Health dean and UPMC-Jonas Salk Chair of Global Health. 

“Although there have been transient periods of minor acceleration or deceleration, the overall drug overdose mortality rate has regularly returned to the exponential growth curve. This historical pattern of predictable growth for at least 38 years strongly suggests that the epidemic will continue along this path for several more years.”

Burke and his colleagues say the type of drug and the demographics of those who die from overdoses has fluctuated over the years. When the use of one drug waned, another drug replaced it, attracting new populations from different geographic regions.

When plotted on a map, certain drugs dominate different areas. Almost every region in the country is a hot spot for overdose deaths from one or more drugs. Heroin and cocaine primarily impact urban populations, while prescription opioids and methamphetamine skew a bit more rural. Cocaine increased death rates for black men, while heroin raised the death rates for younger whites and older blacks.

To be successful, researchers say overdose prevention efforts must extend beyond control of individual drugs. The current subepidemic of drug deaths caused by illegal and legal opioids will likely to be replaced by something else.

“The recent historical variability with which some specific drugs have waxed and waned makes predictions about the future role of specific drugs far more uncertain. Indeed, it is possible that in the future, the drug overdose epidemic may be driven by a new or heretofore obscure psychoactive substance,” Burke warned. 

Click on the video below to see a chart of the different subepidemics and how they align to form an exponential growth curve:

Technological factors fueling the epidemic include enhanced communication methods (smartphones and the Internet), faster supply chains (FedEx and UPS) and underground drug manufacturing that increased the supply of drugs while lowering their cost. Socioeconomic factors such as unemployment, lost social connections and lack of healthcare may also be creating a climate of despair that leads to drug abuse. 

“Understanding the forces that are holding multiple subepidemics together into a smooth exponential trajectory may be important in revealing the root causes of the epidemic, and thisunderstanding may be crucial to implementation of prevention and intervention strategies,” Burke said. 

“Evidence-based public health responses have contained past epidemics. If we understand and address these root causes at the same time that we take on the opioid crisis, we should be able to curb the epidemic for good."

FDA Expands Safe Prescribing Program for Opioids

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration will require that educational training in pain management and safe opioid prescribing be offered to all healthcare providers under a major expansion of the agency’s Opioid Analgesic Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategy (REMS) program.

REMS is also being expanded to include immediate-release (IR) opioids such as hydrocodone, oxycodone and morphine. Until now, REMS regulations only applied to extended-release and long-acting (ER/LA) opioid analgesics, such as OxyContin and Exalgo. Warning labels will be updated for all IR opioids, which account for about 90 percent of opioid pain medications.

“Many people who become addicted to opioids will have their first exposure in the medical setting,” said FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, MD, in a statement. “Today’s action, importantly, subjects immediate-release opioids – which are the most commonly prescribed opioid products – to a more stringent set of requirements.”

The REMS program was first established in 2012. It required manufacturers of ER/LA opioids to pay for continuing education programs for prescribers only. Updated educational content must now also be provided to nurses, pharmacists and other healthcare providers who seek it. The training will cover broader information about pain management, including alternatives to opioids for the treatment of pain.

The training is not mandatory, but the FDA is considering whether to require continuing educational programs in pain management and safe prescribing.

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“The agency believes that all health care providers involved in the management of patients with pain should be educated about the safe use of opioids so that when they write or dispense a prescription for an opioid analgesic, or monitor patients receiving these medications, they can help ensure the proper product is selected for the patient and used with appropriate clinical oversight,” the agency said.

“I think these changes to the REMS are very good and long overdue,” said Bob Twillman, PhD, Executive Director of the Academy of Integrative Pain Management. “We know that the IR opioids are much more highly sought-after, versus ER/LA opioids, for purposes of abuse, and there is absolutely no reason why they (and their manufacturers) should be exempt from this requirement.  

“I’m not concerned, at this stage, about this change causing primary care providers to back off on prescribing, given that participation in the program is still completely voluntary for healthcare providers. If this voluntary status changes, and FDA finds a way to make REMS education mandatory, I will be concerned that some providers will opt out of prescribing opioids altogether.”

The FDA’s action greatly expands the number of opioid products covered by REMS from 62 to 347 opioid analgesics. The updated warning labels will strongly encourage providers to complete a REMS education program, and to counsel patients and caregivers on the safe use of opioid medication.

“Our goal is to help prevent patients from becoming addicted by decreasing unnecessary or inappropriate exposure to opioids and fostering rational prescribing to enable appropriate access to those patients who have legitimate medical need for these medicines,” said Gottlieb.

Opioid prescriptions in the United States fell sharply during the first half of 2018 and now stand at their lowest levels since 2003, according to data released last month by the FDA. The trend appears to be accelerating as many doctors lower doses, write fewer prescriptions or simply discharge pain patients.

While opioid prescriptions decline, overdoses continue to rise. According to preliminary data from the CDC, nearly 49,000 Americans died from opioid overdoses in 2017, over half of them due to illicit fentanyl, heroin and counterfeit drugs, not prescription opioids.

The Role of Suicide in the Opioid Crisis

By Roger Chriss, PNN Columnist

Suicide is an under-appreciated factor in the opioid crisis. Media reports rarely mention it, and pundits and politicians often ignore it. But the reality emerging from experts and a careful study of drug deaths shows that it is very important.

“We’ve done preliminary work suggesting that 22 to 37 percent of opioid-related overdoses are, in fact, suicides or suicide attempts,” Bobbi Jo Yarborough, PsyD, an investigator at the Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research, told HealthItAnalytics.

Yarborough’s estimate is 2 to 3 times higher than the CDC’s. The CDC’s Annual Surveillance Report of Drug-Related Risks and Outcomes states that there were 5,206 suicides among the 47,105 poisoning deaths in 2015. This represents a suicide rate of 11 percent. The CDC gives similar data for 2016 drug deaths, estimating that only 8% were suicides.

Recognition of the importance of suicide in the opioid crisis has been slow to come.

In 2017, then-president of the American Psychiatric Association, Dr. Maria Oquendo, suggested that the suicide rate may be as high as 40 percent, writing in a guest blog for the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) that the risk for suicide death was over 2-fold for men with opioid use disorder and for women it was more than 8-fold.

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Now, finally, interest in this issue is growing. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention recently issued its first grant for studying suicide related to opioid use.

Kaiser Permanente also recently received a grant from NIDA to “examine the role of opioid use in suicide risk and develop better tools to help clinicians identify patients who are at highest risk.”  Kaiser researchers plan to use machine learning and analytics to predict the likelihood of a suicide attempt within 90 days of a primary care outpatient or mental health visit.

Fundamental questions about suicide in the opioid crisis remain to be answered.

"No one has answered the chicken and egg (question)," Dr. Kiame Mahaniah, a Massachusetts family physician, told NPR. “(Do people) have mental health issues that lead to addiction, or did a life of addiction then trigger mental health problems?”

Similarly, people with chronic pain disorders are thought to be “at increased risk for suicide compared with the general population,” as noted in a 2018 PAINWeek conference presentation.

But causality is also uncertain. At present it is not clear what proportion of suicides in the opioid crisis are due to despair, anxiety, addiction or the increasingly poor quality of pain care. There are many anecdotal reports of pain patient suicides, a tragically ignored feature of the crisis.

These distinctions are critical for public health policy in the opioid crisis. Current policy is largely geared toward restricting the opioid supply and monitoring legal pills after prescription. This does little to address underlying mental health issues, illegal drug use, or the impact of psychosocial or economic circumstances on people.

We need a clearer understanding of the opioid crisis, and that includes suicide.

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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.

CDC: Most Overdoses Involve Illicit Opioids

By Pat Anson, Editor

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has released a new report further documenting the changing nature of the opioid crisis and the lesser role played by opioid pain medication in drug overdoses.

The report from the CDC’s Enhanced State Opioid Overdose Surveillance (ESOOS) program looked at nearly 12,000 opioid overdose deaths in 11 states from July 2016 to June 2017. 

Nearly 59 percent of the overdose deaths were attributed to illicit opioids like fentanyl and heroin, while 18.5% had both illicit and prescription opioids.

Less than 18% tested positive for prescription opioids only.

Many of the deaths involved someone with a criminal record or a history of substance abuse. Nearly one in ten overdose victims had been released from a prison or jail in the month preceding the overdose.

Evidence of injection drug use was found in about half of the illicit opioid deaths and about 15% had lived through a previous overdose.

OPIOID OVERDOSES (2016-2017)

Source: CDC Enhanced State Opioid Overdose Surveillance

There were also distinct differences in demographics between the illicit and prescription opioid overdoses. The average age of people who died from prescription opioids was 47, while the average age of those who died from illicit opioids was 36. Men were far more likely to overdose on an illicit opioid (73%), while more women (51%) died from a prescription opioid overdose.

“Findings from this analysis indicate that illicit opioids were a major driver of opioid deaths, especially among younger persons, and were detected in approximately three of four deaths overall. Prescription opioids were detected in approximately four of 10 deaths,” CDC researchers reported in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR).

Polysubstance Overdoses

Another key finding from the report was the frequent involvement of other drugs in opioid overdoses.

Benzodiazepines – a class of anti-anxiety medication that includes Xanax and Valium – were detected in over half of the prescription opioid deaths and in about one of every four illicit opioid deaths. “Benzos” depress the central nervous system and raise the risk of overdose when used with opioids. 

Gabapentin (Neurontin) – an anti-seizure drug widely prescribed off-label to treat pain -- was detected in over 21% of the prescription opioid deaths and in about 10% of the other overdoses.

“The combined use of gabapentin and opioids might be an indicator of high-risk opioid misuse and requires further study,” researchers said. “Extensive use of cocaine and benzodiazepines among deaths where both prescription and illicit opioids were detected highlights the need for prevention and treatment programs to address polysubstance use.”

Because so many drugs – both legal and illegal -- are often involved in overdoses, the CDC researchers cautioned that efforts to prevent opioid abuse “should not focus exclusively on one opioid type.”

That warning is at odds with the CDC’s own Rx Awareness program, an advertising campaign launched last year that focuses solely on the stories of people “whose lives were torn apart by prescription opioids.”

Fentanyl, heroin and other drugs commonly involved in overdoses are not addressed by the Rx Awareness campaign. 

“Specificity is a best practice in communication, and the Rx Awareness campaign messaging focuses on the critical issue of prescription opioids. Given the broad target audience, focusing on prescription opioids avoids diluting the campaign messaging,” the CDC explained when launching the campaign.

RX AWARENESS AD

RX AWARENESS AD

Earlier this year, CDC researchers acknowledged that they overestimated the number of overdoses involving prescription opioids by combining them with deaths attributed to illicit fentanyl and other synthetic opioids. The ESOOS program was launched, in part, to correct that error.

ESOOS data is considered more reliable because it includes blood toxicology reports, as well as death certificates, medical examiner and coroner reports, death scene investigations, and an overdose victim’s history of substance abuse. A total of 32 states participate in ESOOS.

The 11 states participating in the current report include: Oklahoma, New Mexico, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Missouri, Ohio, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Kentucky.

90% of Massachusetts Overdoses Linked to Fentanyl

By Pat Anson, Editor

Nearly 90 percent of opioid-related overdose deaths in Massachusetts now involve fentanyl, according to a new report that documents the rapidly changing nature of the opioid crisis. Less than 20 percent of drug overdoses in the state were linked to prescription opioids.

In the second quarter of 2018, Massachusetts health officials say 498 people died from an opioid-related overdose – the third straight quarter that opioid deaths have declined.

But the good news was tempered by the rising toll taken by fentanyl -- the synthetic opioid that’s become a deadly scourge on the black market. Fentanyl is often mixed with heroin, cocaine and counterfeit drugs to increase their potency. 

Because Massachusetts was one of the first states to conduct blood toxicology tests in overdose cases, it’s quarterly reports on drug deaths are considered more accurate than federal estimates and more likely to spot emerging trends in drug use. 

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"This quarterly report provides a new level of data revealing an unsettling correlation between high levels of synthetic fentanyl present in toxicology reports and overdose death rates. It is critically important that the Commonwealth understand and study this information so we can better respond to this disease and help more people,” Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker said in a statement.

Another trend documented in Massachusetts is the increasing role played by cocaine and benzodiazepines --- an anti-anxiety medication – in drug overdoses. In the first quarter of 2018, cocaine (43%) and benzodiazepines (42%) were involved in more overdoses than heroin (34%) and prescription opioids (19%). 

SOURCE: MASSACHUSETTS DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC HEALTH

SOURCE: MASSACHUSETTS DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC HEALTH

Drug experts say many cocaine users may not realize their drug has been spiked with fentanyl, while many people who buy Xanax or Valium on the black market don’t know they’re getting counterfeit medication laced with fentanyl.

“If you are using illicit drugs in Massachusetts, you really have to be aware that fentanyl is a risk no matter which drug you’re using,” Dr. Monica Bharel, Massachusetts public health commissioner told The Boston Globe. “The increased risk of death related to fentanyl is what’s driving this epidemic.”

Fentanyl is also involved in a growing number of fatal overdoses in Pennsylvania. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, there were 5,456 overdose deaths in Pennsylvania last year. Of those, over 67% percent involved fentanyl. The presence of fentanyl or its chemical cousins in overdose deaths rose almost 400% in the state from 2015 to 2017.

Most overdoses involve multiple drugs and blood tests alone do not determine a cause of death -- only which drugs were present at the time of death.

A Careful Reading of 'Dopesick'

By Roger Chriss, PNN Columnist

The new book “Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company That Addicted America” by Beth Macy describes the origins of the opioid crisis and the plight of people addicted to opioids, particularly in the Roanoke area of Virginia.

The book looks at the crisis from multiple perspectives, including local physicians and pharmacists, law enforcement and attorneys, community leaders and even drug dealers. Macy treats the story of opioids, addiction, and fatal overdose with sympathy and concern.

“Until we understand how we reached this place, America will remain a country where getting addicted is far easier than securing treatment,” she wrote.

Macy relies heavily on books like “Painkiller” by Barry Meier and “American Pain” by John Temple, asking questions these journalists explored but providing no new answers. In so doing, she perpetuates numerous media-driven myths about the crisis and misses opportunities to investigate important open questions.

Dopesick starts with the arrival of Purdue Pharma’s OxyContin and the rapid rise of addiction and overdose. Appalachia was among the first places where OxyContin gained a foothold in the mid-1990s, quickly ensnaring working class families:

“The town pharmacist on the other line was incredulous: ‘Man, we only got it a month or two ago. And you’re telling me it’s already on the street?’”

It is still not clear how OxyContin made it into the black market so deeply and quickly, but Macy concludes that overprescribing for chronic pain was a key factor in the crisis. She cites “recent studies” that the addiction rate for patients prescribed opioids was “as high as 56 percent."

Most studies actually put the addiction rate much lower, with the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) estimating it at 8 to 12 percent.

In the second part of Dopesick, Macy draws on the work of Stanford psychiatrist Dr. Anna Lembke in describing adolescent drug use:

“Across the country, OxyContin was becoming a staple of suburban teenage ‘pharm parties,’ or ‘farming,’ as the practice of passing random pills around in hats was known.”

But pharm parties were debunked years ago as an urban legend.  Slate’s Jack Shafer looked into their origin and concluded the “pharm party is just a new label the drug-abuse industrial complex has adopted."

Macy’s writing often echoes her source materials. On adolescent drug use, she writes:

“So it went that young people barely flinched at the thought of taking Adderall to get them going in the morning, an opioid painkiller for a sports injury in the afternoon, and a Xanax to help them sleep at night, many of the pills doctor prescribed."

Lembke herself wrote in the book ”Drug Dealer, M.D.” in 2015:

“Many of today’s youth think nothing of taking Adderall (a stimulant) in the morning to get themselves going, Vicodin (an opioid painkiller) after lunch to treat a sport’s injury, ‘medical’ marijuana in the evening to relax, and Xanax (a benzodiazepine) at night to put themselves to sleep, all prescribed by a doctor."

The similarities between Macy and Lembke (a board member of the anti-opioid group Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing) are striking.  More importantly, the data on teenage drug use disagrees with both of them. According to NIDA, teen drug use has been in decline for most substances for the past 10 years. Which makes it hard to parse Macy’s and Lembke’s claims about high levels of medication misuse among the teenagers they describe.

Macy also perpetuates ideas about race in the crisis: “Doctors didn’t trust people of color not to abuse opioids, so they prescribed them painkillers at far lower rates than they did whites.”

“It’s a case where racial stereotypes actually seem to be having a protective effect,” she quotes PROP founder and Executive Director Andrew Kolodny, MD.

In fact, rates of addiction and overdose have been rising rapidly among African Americans for years and recent CDC data on ethnicity in overdoses shows no significant difference among black, white, and Hispanic populations. The crisis has long since evolved beyond omitting a particular minority group.

Why did it take so long to recognize the opioid crisis and work to stop it?  Macy assigns blame to the political unimportance of regions like Appalachia, the failure in many states to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, and addiction treatment that’s based on 12-step or abstinence-only programs. She writes about the treatment industry with almost righteous anger:

“An annual $35 billion lie -- according to a New York Times exposé of a recovery industry it found to be unevenly regulated, rapacious, and largely abstinence-focused when multiple studies show outpatient MAT (medication assisted therapy) is the best way to prevent overdose deaths.”

“The battle lines over MAT persist in today’s treatment landscape -- from AA rooms where people on Suboxone are perceived as unclean and therefore unable to work its program, to the debate between pro-MAT public health professionals and most of Virginia’s drug-court prosecutors and judges, who staunchly prohibit its use.”

But Macy doesn’t look at the full story that heroin addiction represents. She omits the shattered childhoods and serious mental illness often seen in heroin users, and ignores the complicated trajectory of substance abuse. She also skips the fact that heroin addiction frequently starts without prior use of any opioids.

Throughout the book, Macy follows the standard media narrative of the crisis, focusing on addiction as a result of pain management gone wrong. But most people who become addicted to opioids start with alcohol, marijuana and other recreational drugs.

What Dopesick may lack in depth and rigor, it makes up for in compassion and intensity. Unfortunately, Macy accepts at face value claims from experts when she should have fact-checked them.  Perhaps the errors will be corrected in a second edition, which could turn an interesting book into essential reading.

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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.

Long-Term Opioid Use Rare After Wisdom Teeth Removed

By Pat Anson, Editor

Anti-opioid activists have long claimed that thousands of young people have become addicted to opioid pain medication after having their wisdom teeth removed.

“Would you give your child heroin to remove a wisdom tooth?” is how a provocative 2016 anti-opioid billboard in New York City’s Times Square put it.

But a large new study published in JAMA found that the risk of long-term opioid use after wisdom tooth removal is relatively rare – although still a cause for concern.

The study of over 70,000 teens and young adults found that only 1.3% were still being prescribed opioids months after their initial prescription by a dentist. The risk of long-term use was nearly 3 times higher for young people prescribed opioids than for those who were not (0.5%).

Although the overall risk of long-term use is small, researchers say the sheer number of wisdom tooth removals warrants caution when prescribing opioids.

"Wisdom tooth extraction is performed 3.5 million times a year in the United States, and many dentists routinely prescribe opioids in case patients need it for post-procedure pain," said lead author Calista Harbaugh, MD, a research fellow and surgical resident at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation.

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"Until now, we haven't had data on the long-term risks of opioid use after wisdom tooth extraction. We now see that a sizable number go on to fill opioid prescriptions long after we would expect they would need for recovery, and the main predictor of persistent use is whether or not they fill that initial prescription."

Harbaugh and her colleagues looked at insurance claims for opioid prescriptions between 2009 and 2015. Hydrocodone (70%) was the most common opioid prescribed after wisdom tooth removal, followed by oxycodone (24%). Long-term opioid use was defined as two or more prescriptions filled in the year after wisdom tooth removal.

But other factors besides dental surgery raised the risk of long-term opioid use. Teens and young adults who had a history of chronic pain or mental health issues such as depression and anxiety were more likely to go on to regular use after filling their initial opioid prescription.

"These are some of the first data to the show long-term ill effects of routine opioid prescribing after tooth extractions. When taken together with the previous studies showing that opioids are not helpful in these cases, dentists and oral surgeons should stop routinely prescribing opioids for wisdom tooth extractions and likely other common dental procedures," said senior author Chad Brummett, MD, co-director of the Michigan Opioid Prescribing and Engagement Network.

There are no specific prescribing guidelines for wisdom tooth removal. The American Dental Association recommends that dentists first consider non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) for pain relief. It also supports the CDC opioid guidelines, which recommend that opioids be limited to no more than 7 days' supply for acute pain.

A small 2016 study found that over half the opioids prescribed to patients after wisdom tooth removal or dental surgery go unused, with many of the leftover pills being abused or stolen by friends and family members. On average, dental patients received 28 opioid pills and – three weeks later – most had pills leftover.

How Common Is Opioid Addiction?

By Roger Chriss, PNN Columnist

As the opioid crisis continues to worsen, there is increased scrutiny of both prescribing levels and fatal overdose rates. The goal of reducing opioid prescriptions is to decrease the exposure to opioids, on the theory that medical use of opioid analgesics is closely linked with addiction and overdose risk.

But how valid is that theory? A key issue in the crisis is opioid addiction rates, which can be divided into medical and non-medical addiction.

Medical Opioid Addiction Rates

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that 8 to 12% of patients on long-term opioid therapy develop an opioid use disorder.

“The best and most recent estimate of the percentage of patients who will develop an addiction after being prescribed an opioid analgesic for long-term management of their chronic pain stands at around 8 percent,” NIDA Director Nora Volkow, MD, told Opioid Watch.

The NIDA estimate is well-researched and widely accepted. But there are other estimates, each with important qualifications.

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Cochrane found in a major review of studies of long term opioid therapy for non-cancer pain that only 0.27% of participants were at risk of opioid addiction, abuse or other serious side effects.

In another large study, The BMJ reported that only about 3% of previously opioid naïve patients (new to opioids) continued to use them more than 90 days after major elective surgery.

Other addiction rates include numbers as low as 1% and as high as 40%. But details matter. Much of the difference in addiction rates stems from three factors:

  1. How well screened the patient population is
  2. How carefully monitored the patients are during opioid therapy
  3. How the criteria for opioid use disorder are applied

In other words, a well-screened and closely monitored population of adults with no risk factors may well have an addiction rate of 1%. The recent SPACE study by Erin Krebs, MD, in which over 100 people with knee osteoarthritis and low back pain were put on opioid therapy for a year, saw no signs of misuse, abuse or addiction. There were also no overdoses.

Non-Medical Opioid Addiction Rates

It’s also important to look at the percentage of people who become addicted to opioids without ever having an opioid prescription. Here the addiction rates are much higher.

A 2009 study in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that among treatment-seeking individuals who used OxyContin, 78% had not been prescribed the drug for any medical reason. The OxyContin was “most frequently obtained from nonmedical sources as part of a broader and longer-term pattern of multiple substance abuse.”  

The 2014 National Survey on Drug Use also found that about 75% of all opioid misuse starts outside medical care, with over half of opioid abusers reporting that the drugs were obtained “from a friend or relative for free.”

Heroin is considered highly addictive, with nearly one in four heroin users becoming dependent. Importantly, most people who try heroin already have extensive experience with other substances, including opioid medication, and many have serious mental illness. There is no research on the addictive potential of heroin in drug-naive people.

Relatively little is known about the complex and concealed world of nonmedical opioid use. Researchers like UCSF’s Daniel Cicerone are working to fill this gap by collecting information on overdoses to get a more accurate picture on the type of opioids being used.  

Risk Management

Opioids remain an essential part of modern medicine, from trauma and battlefield medicine to surgery, end-of-life care and long-term management of chronic, progressive degenerative conditions. This makes risk management vital.

Current tools to screen patients include the long-standing COMM tool and the new NIDA TAPS tool. Novel approaches using genetic testing for opioid risk may eventually help clinicians better assess risk, too. And improved data analytics may also help reduce addiction.

"Understanding the pooled effect of risk factors can help physicians develop effective and individualized pain management strategies with a lower risk of prolonged opioid use," says Ara Nazarian, PhD, a researcher at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

The Krebs SPACE study achieved an admirable level of safety by carefully screening and monitoring patients during opioid therapy. A similar patient-focused approach that acknowledges the low rate of medical opioid addiction and works to minimize it further is likely to bring benefits to both individuals and society at large.

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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.

Pain Management Not the Same as Addiction

By Marvin Ross, Guest Columnist

It's bad enough that mental illness is, for some strange reason, paired with addiction. But now the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) wants to include pain management as part of its “National Pain and Addictions Strategy.”

Addiction is a terrible affliction for the person addicted, for their family and for society. Of that, there is no question. But it is now considered a mental illness and I have no idea why. As I wrote once before, “Addictions at some point involve choice. You made a decision to go into a bar and start drinking or to snort coke, take opioids or inject heroin. No one has a choice to become schizophrenic, bipolar, depressed or any other serious mental illness. There is no choice involved whatsoever.” 

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I also cited smoking, which most people of my generation did and most of us quit. I smoked two  packs a day and quit because my wife has asthma and was pregnant. I was motivated.

I also pointed out that during the Vietnam War, 40% of troops used heroin and the government was fearful of what would happen when they came back. Fortunately for all, 95% of those troops gave up heroin without any intervention whatsoever. They were no longer in a dangerous war zone trying to escape anyway they could.

Chronic pain patients are generally neither addicts nor mentally ill. What they are addicted to is being as pain free as they can be. Chronic pain results from any number of valid medical conditions, severe trauma and/or botched surgical procedures. For many, opioid medication is necessary to have any quality of life.

But CMHA sees opioid prescribing as an inevitable bridge to addiction:

“CMHA is currently collaborating with research partners to explore the efficacy of multidisciplinary care teams and their role in pain management and opioid tapering. CMHA also believes that creating a National Pain Strategy that includes addictions would allow for more effective training and would better prepare physicians and primary care providers to treat pain in Canada.”

CMHA is correct when they say that pain is poorly managed in Canada and not well understood. But what expertise do they have to make recommendations on how pain should be treated? Their primary recommendation is that we should find alternatives to opiates. And, if we must give patients opiates, there should be an exit strategy, so they do not take them for too long.

This is based on the false assumption that addiction is being fueled by those with chronic pain, even though overdose deaths in Canada are predominantly among males aged 30-39 and involve illicit fentanyl. Contrast that to the demographics of chronic pain, which is mostly seen in women and older adults over the age of 56.

Those are two totally separate populations!

If opioid medication is a contributor to this problem, then why did opioid prescriptions in Canada decline by over 10% between 2016 and 2017, while opioid overdose deaths rose by 45% over the same period? 

The CMHA calls for an increase in alternative therapies to treat chronic pain. This is the definition of alternative medicine from the New England Journal of Medicine:

“There cannot be two kinds of medicine -- conventional and alternative. There is only medicine that has been adequately tested and medicine that has not, medicine that works and medicine that may or may not work. Once a treatment has been tested rigorously, it no longer matters whether it was considered alternative at the outset. If it is found to be reasonably safe and effective, it will be accepted. But assertions, speculation, and testimonials do not substitute for evidence. Alternative treatments should be subjected to scientific testing no less rigorous than that required for conventional treatments.”

Opioids work for chronic pain, as found in a 2010 Cochrane Review and by a more recent review in the Journal of Pain Research.

Jason Busse, the chiropractor who helped draft Canada’s 2017 opioid guideline, told me in a Twitter debate that this second study was only for 3 months so it is not relevant for the long term use of opioids. However, Prozac was approved for use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration after two clinical trials of 6 and 8 weeks duration. Many people use Prozac for years.

Neither chiropractic, massage or acupuncture have been shown to be effective for chronic pain. Many doctors are also pushing anti-epilepsy drugs like gabapentin (Neurontin) as an alternative to opioids, but they do not always work and have major side effects. The same is true for its sister drug, pregabalin (Lyrica).

There is some evidence that medical cannabis may help with chronic pain, but it is very expensive and, even when prescribed, is not covered by public or most health plans.

Members of my family suffer with chronic pain and they do not want a National Pain and Addictions Strategy. What they want is continued access to the pain medication that has helped them carry on as normal a life as possible. There is no euphoria when they take these meds, other than the euphoria that comes from reducing their pain levels sufficiently so they can enjoy a trip to the cinema, theatre, dinner with friends and whatever else gives pleasure.

In June, I attended a meeting in Oshawa, Ontario arranged by chronic pain patients with a representative of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario. About 30 pain patients attended from all over Ontario and told the doctor how much they were being forced to suffer because their medication was reduced. One woman said she is not capable of getting out of bed to care for her children and would consider suicide if it weren't for them. Similar comments were made by others, but the doctor was unmoved and left early.

If CMHA (and others) can call for decriminalizing drugs and providing the addicted with safe drugs, why can no one be willing to provide pain patients with the same? It is inhumane.

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Marvin Ross is a medical writer and publisher in Dundas, Ontario. He has been writing on chronic pain for the past year and is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post.

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.

Addiction to Rx Opioids Falling

By Pat Anson, Editor

A new report from health insurance giant Blue Cross Blue Shield highlights a little-known and rarely reported aspect of the opioid crisis: Addiction to opioid pain medication is declining, not increasing.

Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS) said 241,900 of its members were diagnosed with opioid use disorder (OUD) in 2017, a rate of 6.2 for every 1,000 BCBS members. The rate fell to 5.9 in 1,000 members in 2017, a decline of nearly 5 percent. The insurer said it was the first drop in the eight years BCBS has tracked diagnoses of OUD.

"We are encouraged by these findings, but we remain vigilant," said Trent Haywood, MD, senior vice president and chief medical officer for BCBS said in a statement.

"More work is needed to better evaluate the effectiveness of treatment options and ensure access to care for those suffering from opioid use disorder."

BCBS attributes much of the decline to a 29% drop in opioid prescriptions for its members since 2013.  A longtime critic of opioid prescribing hailed the findings as a sign of change.

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"It means that there's light at the end of the tunnel," psychiatrist Andrew Kolodny, MD, the founder and executive director of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP) told BuzzFeed.

"Unfortunately though, the genie is out of the bottle," said Kolodny, a former medical director of the addiction treatment chain Phoenix House. "Millions of Americans are now struggling with opioid addiction. Unless we do a better job of increasing access to effective treatment, overdose deaths will remain at record high levels and we'll have to wait for this generation to die off before the crisis comes to an end."

Admissions for Addiction Treatment

The BCBS numbers should be taken with a grain of salt, since they include all types of opioid addiction, including those linked to heroin, illicit fentanyl and prescription opioids. A more accurate way to track addiction to opioid medication would be admissions to publicly-funded treatment facilities for “non-heroin opiates/synthetic abuse” – a category that excludes heroin, but includes hydrocodone, oxycodone, fentanyl and other painkillers.

A database maintained by the Substances Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) shows that treatment admissions for prescription opioids peaked in 2011 at 193,552 admissions and fell to 121,363 by 2015 – a significant decline of over 37 percent. It seems likely that admissions for painkiller abuse have fallen even further since 2015, as opioid prescriptions have continued to plummet, and more pain patients are abandoned or denied treatment.

The SAMHSA data also reveals another trend: While the number of people seeking treatment for painkiller, alcohol and marijuana abuse has declined, admissions to treatment facilities for heroin addiction have soared. In 2010, there were 270,564 admissions in which heroin was identified as the primary substance of abuse. By 2015, that number had grown to 401,743 admissions – an increase of nearly a third.

ADMISSIONS TO ADDICTION TREATMENT FACILITIES

SOURCE: SAMHSA

Admissions for heroin addiction now surpass those for other substances, yet much of the nation’s spending and law enforcement resources remain targeted on opioid prescriptions. Many public health officials also cling to the myth the heroin epidemic was triggered by opioid overprescribing, even though heroin admissions outnumber painkiller admissions by a 3 to 1 margin.

“Epidemiological data show that as widely prescribed opioids became less accessible due to supply side interventions, heroin use skyrocketed,“ psychiatrist Nora Volkow, MD, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, recently told OpioidWatch.  Volkow was an early supporter of the CDC opioid guideline, one of the first supply side interventions, a strategy that she now characterizes as "naive."

“Expecting that declines in rates of prescribed opioids could, by themselves, stem the tide of the opioid crisis is naïve and an oversimplification of the complex nature of the crisis," Volkow said. "Legitimate questions have been raised about whether some pain patients might now be undertreated, and whether tightened prescribing practices over the last few years has contributed to the surge in overdose deaths from heroin and especially fentanyl.”

A recent study by SAMHSA found that deaths linked to illicit fentanyl and other synthetic opioids surpassed overdoses involving pain medication in 2016.  The study also found that drugs used to treat depression and anxiety are involved in more overdoses than any other class of medication.

OxyContin, Heroin and the Opioid Crisis

By Roger Chriss, PNN Columnist

The roles of heroin and OxyContin in the opioid crisis are frequently mischaracterized and misunderstood. Such is the case with a recent op/ed in The Washington Post.

“In the 1990s, when the industry began aggressively marketing prescription opioids such as OxyContin, heroin was a minimal presence in American life," wrote Keith Humphreys, PhD, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University

This is an unfortunate and common error about the role of heroin in the opioid crisis. Humphreys is repeating what many politicians and policymakers have also claimed. It’s important to correct this error because otherwise we will misunderstand how to treat heroin addiction, what our options are for pain management, and how to create sound policies to address the opioid crisis.

In fact, the U.S. has long had a major problem with heroin. Mexican black tar heroin arrived decades before OxyContin, and opioid addiction is usually a result of recreational use starting during adolescence, with addiction due to medical care being uncommon.

According to the book “Dark Paradise” by historian David Courtwright, researchers estimated the number of heroin addicts in the U.S. during the 1990s at a half million or more, about the same level as in the mid-1970s. This is also close to the 626,000 heroin addicts that the National Institute of Drug Abuse estimates for 2016.

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Fatal overdoses involving Mexican black tar heroin were increasing even before OxyContin was introduced by Purdue Pharma in 1996. Sam Quinones notes in “Dreamland” that Oregon’s Multnomah County had only 10 heroin overdose deaths in 1991, about the time Mexican drug dealers arrived in Portland, but by 1999 there were 111 heroin overdoses.

So the idea that “heroin was a minimal presence in American life” isn’t supported by data. Neither is the claim that heroin traffickers “set up shop in the areas of the United States with the highest prevalence of prescription opioid addiction.”

According to Quinones, the Mexican drug gang the “Xalisco Boys” went into communities that were not a part of the established drug trade and were not subject to turf wars or other forms of gang violence. They wanted to fly below the radar, to avoid detection by law enforcement, and deliberately avoided carrying guns, driving fancy cars, or living large.
So the Xalisco Boys went to smaller cities like Portland and rural communities like Appalachia that were specifically chosen because they were low risk. And they were there well before 1996 and the advent of OxyContin.

Humphreys makes an additional error with his claim that about 80 percent of Americans who became heroin addicts started out with prescription opioids, according to an assessment from the National Institutes of Health. The 80% statistic varies significantly with time and place. As I wrote in a previous column,  non-medical use of opioid medication was found in 50% of young adult heroin users in Ohio, in 86% of heroin users in New York and Los Angeles, and in 40%, 39%, and 70% of heroin users in San Diego, Seattle, and New York respectively.

It's also important to note that “prescription opioids” does not necessarily mean prescribed opioids. Many addicts don't have a prescription and steal, buy or borrow pain medication. The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that about 10 percent of patients legally prescribed opioids develop an opioid use disorder. And only about 5 percent of those who misuse their medication transition to heroin.

There is also a disturbing new trend in heroin use. A study in JAMA Psychiatry last year found that about one-third of heroin users had no prior experience with any opioid, prescription or otherwise. Heroin users often have extensive prior drug use with a variety of different substances, along with a history of severe childhood trauma or mental illness.

Humphreys’ claim that the “heroin-addicted were transfers from prescription opioids” ignores another route on the path to opioid addiction. In “Drug Dealer, MD,” Stanford psychiatrist Anna Lembke says some drug addicts switched from heroin to prescription opioids in the late 1990s and early 2000s because of the increased availability of the latter.

None of this is meant to exonerate OxyContin or Purdue Pharma. Barry Meier’s recent book “Pain Killer” does a good job of explaining the history of the company and why it is the focus of so many lawsuits. Purdue was fined over $600 million for the illegal marketing of OxyContin and important questions about the company’s actions remain to be answered.

Heroin addiction has been a major presence in American life for generations. The current opioid crisis may have been jump-started with prescription drugs, but heroin came long before OxyContin. It is better to view OxyContin as gasoline tossed on a smoldering fire, rather than blame OxyContin for heroin. The crisis is more complicated and pervasive than that.

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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.

Over 600 Arrested in Healthcare Fraud Sweep

By Pat Anson, Editor

Over 600 doctors, nurses, pharmacists and other medical providers have been arrested in what the U.S. Justice Department is calling its largest healthcare fraud investigation.

Most of the charges involve false claims for opioid prescriptions or addiction treatment that resulted in $2 billion in fraudulent billings to Medicare, Medicaid and other health insurers. Many of the arrests occurred weeks or months ago, and were apparently lumped together by federal agencies to make the crackdown on healthcare fraud appear to be the "largest ever." 

“This is the most fraud, the most defendants, and the most doctors ever charged in a single operation -- and we have evidence that our ongoing work has stopped or prevented billions of dollars’ worth of fraud,” said Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

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Federal officials also announced that they have excluded 2,700 individuals from participating in Medicare, Medicaid and other federal health programs, including 587 providers excluded for conduct related to opioid diversion and abuse. 

“Health care fraud is a betrayal of vulnerable patients, and often it is theft from the taxpayer,” said Sessions.  “In many cases, doctors, nurses, and pharmacists take advantage of people suffering from drug addiction in order to line their pockets. These are despicable crimes.”

A $106 million scheme uncovered in Florida alleged there was widespread fraudulent urine drug testing at a substance abuse treatment center. The owner, medical director and two employees at the sober living facility allegedly recruited patients and paid kickbacks to them for participating in bogus drug tests.

In California, an attorney at a compounding pharmacy allegedly paid kickbacks and offered incentives such as prostitutes and expensive meals to two podiatrists in exchange for bogus prescriptions written on pre-printed prescription pads. Once the fraudulent prescriptions were filled, about $250 million in false claims were submitted to federal, state and private insurers.

In Texas, a pharmacy chain owner, managing partner and lead pharmacist were accused of using fraudulent prescriptions to fill bulk orders for over one million hydrocodone and oxycodone pills, which the pharmacy then sold to drug couriers for millions of dollars. 

“Healthcare fraud touches every corner of the United States and not only costs taxpayers money, but also can have deadly consequences,” said FBI Deputy Director David Bowdich.  “Through investigations across the country, we have seen medical professionals putting greed above their patients’ well-being and trusted doctors fanning the flames of the opioid crisis.”

Since becoming Attorney General, Sessions has shown a particular interest in opioid prescriptions -- once urging pain patients to “tough it out” and take aspirin instead.

Last August, Sessions ordered the formation of a new data analysis team, the Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit, to focus solely on opioid-related health care fraud.  Five months later, Sessions launched a Justice Department task force targeting manufacturers and distributors of opioid medication, as well as physicians and pharmacies engaged in the “unlawful” prescribing of opioids.

As PNN has reported, the data mining of opioid prescriptions -- without examining the full context of who the medications were written for or why – can be problematic. Last year the DEA raided the offices of Dr. Forest Tennant, a prominent California pain physician, because he had “very suspicious prescribing patterns.” Tennant only treated intractable pain patients, many from out-of-state, and often prescribed high doses of opioids to patients because of their chronically poor health -- important facts that were omitted or ignored by DEA investigators. Tennant has not been charged with a crime, but announced plans to retire after the DEA raid.

Sessions has also proposed a new rule that would allow the DEA to punish drug makers if their painkillers are diverted or abused. If approved, the agency could reduce the amount of opioids a company would be allowed to produce, even if the drug maker had no direct role in the diversion.

Most overdoses are not linked to opioid pain medication, but are more likely associated with illicit fentanyl, heroin, anti-anxiety drugs or antidepressants.

My Opioid Dependency Turned into Addiction

By Jim Best, Guest Columnist

When I was in my early 40’s, I had an accident at work that injured the discs in my lower back. I tried physical therapy, but after three months of little improvement they performed a discectomy.

The surgery was successful and I had very little pain until a year later, when I re-injured the same area. I was taken to the hospital in an ambulance and a neurosurgeon decided I needed emergency surgery and performed a laminectomy. This time, the pain came back after less than six months. I was in constant pain (most days rated somewhere between a 6-8) and unable to work. 

The next ten years included numerous trips to various providers, including pain specialists. I was evaluated by orthopedists and neurologists, and informed I was not a good candidate for spinal fusion surgery due to my overall body structure. They took more than a dozen MRI’s and I was subject to painful spinal injections on a regular basis.

I was also given a discogram, which is an extremely painful diagnostic procedure involving the insertion of needles into the spinal discs. The pain was so severe from this procedure that I passed out. The results were “inconclusive.”

During those ten years I was also introduced to opiate medication. They started me off on Vicodin and I was eventually prescribed OxyContin by my regular doctor. I took relatively small doses to start, but it didn’t take too long before I was being prescribed larger and larger doses.

What I didn’t know was that the more I took, the more I thought I needed. This is known as opioid-induced hyperalgesia, a syndrome in which people can become hypersensitive to painful stimuli due to prolonged use of opioids.

Although at the time I was sure that had nothing to do with my case, now I see where it made perfect sense and I should have ceased my opiate use immediately. However, I continued to use for five additional years. 

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JIM BEST

An important part of my story concerns my addiction to alcohol, which I stopped using in 2005. I was a stalwart member of AA up until 2015, when I had a relapse. I never really discussed my use of painkillers with other people because I was afraid they would think I might have a problem with pills. Of course, they would have been correct, but I fooled myself into thinking I was okay.

That is part of the self-delusion of any kind of drug use, but perhaps more so with opiates because they were prescribed by a doctor and because I felt I had a legitimate reason for using them -- a rationalization I maintained even when I was using far more than prescribed.

Looking back, I do not believe I should have ever been prescribed opioid medication due to my addictive personality. I don’t blame the doctor who prescribed them to me. I would tell her horrible stories of not being able to get out of bed without the pills, or how some days all I could do was sit in a chair and cry. I believe that as a physician (as well as a caring and compassionate human being), she was concerned with my pain and truly thought she was doing what was in my best interest.   

It’s important to make one fact clear: I was in pain. Although I certainly hyperbolized my symptoms to my doctor, girlfriend and a few others, I did have daily chronic pain. And I was dependent on the drugs to provide some modicum of relief.

There came a time, however, when the dependency turned into an addiction. I literally could not function without large doses of the drugs. I also began to abuse them by taking more than prescribed and taking them in non-prescribed methods such as snorting.

The end of my use came when I got busted by my doctor. She caught me in one of the myriad of lies I had to tell because I would run out of pills before the next prescription was due. She gave me a script for 10 Xanax and basically told me good luck.

I went through withdrawal for a few days and then, after almost ten years of sobriety, I started to drink again. Eventually, I ended up in treatment. I admitted to the counselors at the treatment center that opioids were also “sort of a problem.” Luckily, they saw through the lie and I was put on Suboxone. I still take the Subs because they help with the pain and I don’t have the urge to use anymore.

I still experience daily pain. Some days it is bad enough that I have to be very careful with how much I exert myself. But I manage to get by without the pills.

As an aside, I feel like the current restrictions being put on opioid medications are too extreme. Not everyone that takes them has a problem and by restricting them, as many states currently are, they are making life very difficult for the ones using them responsibly.

What other people do is their business. For myself, taking such medications is no longer an option. I hope this story helps someone. 

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Jim Best lives in Minnesota.

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.

The Other Victims of the Opioid Epidemic

By Katie Burge, Guest Columnist

Imagine the fear, frustration, helplessness and anger you might feel upon learning that your doctor cannot treat you to the best of his or her ability because they’re afraid of being arrested. 

I don't have to imagine that because I am a chronic pain patient with a degenerative spinal condition, plus severe osteoarthritis and fibromyalgia; each of which cause severe chronic pain 24/7. Combined, they can make simple tasks like getting dressed in the morning sheer torture.

Pain patients are the other victims of the so-called opioid epidemic, the ones the media usually don’t mention unless they're blaming us for other people's drug usage. 

Patients are being forced to live in agony and, as a result, increasingly lose their lives due to catastrophic medical events, such as stroke, heart attack and even suicide.

These can all be triggered by the physical, mental and emotional pressures of trying to survive with inadequately treated chronic pain.

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Why?  Because politicians and bureaucrats (who refuse to admit the government is completely impotent at controlling the proliferation of illicit drugs) have managed to sell the public on the ridiculous premise that refusing medically necessary medication to one group of people will somehow alter the behavior of another group, and handily end America's drug crisis.

This approach simply does not work. Torturing vulnerable pain patients by refusing them life-giving medication will never make the slightest dent in the illegal drug trade because, sadly, people who want to get high will find something somewhere that will enable them to do so. 

Also, most of the prescription opioids that people abuse DO NOT come from doctors or pain patients. Less than one percent of legally prescribed opioid medication is diverted.  People in true pain are not going to suffer additionally by sharing or selling their medication. And doctors are not as careless with their prescription pads as the powers-that-be would like you to think.  

Nonetheless, the entities that control doctors’ licenses to prescribe opioids have yielded to political pressure by ordering doctors to either cut back on pain medication to the point that it's ineffective or stop opioid treatment altogether, regardless of patient need or outcome.

Inadequately treated chronic pain has stolen a great deal of my independence and quality of life, and though I hate the idea of taking pain medication at all, my greatest desire is to simply be able to fully participate in my own life again.  I will never be pain free, but I long to be able to play with my grandchildren, go to the theater or sit through an entire movie (and still be able to walk back to my car).

The mainstream media is also responsible for the ridiculous narrative that opioids have no legitimate clinical use and are immediately addictive. The result of this bias and hyperbole is that most folks believe outlawing the legitimate medical use of opioids can only be a good thing. Society teaches us that pain is somehow shameful.  We must “suffer in silence” and learn to control our pain without complaint or medical intervention. 

With such an abundance of myth and misinformation, it's no small wonder that actual facts about pain tend to get lost in the mix. Please allow me to share a few:

First, many overdose deaths are made to sound as though they were caused by a single prescription or even a single dose of opioids, when they are actually the result of a mixture of different medications, street drugs and alcohol. 

Second, chronic pain affects more Americans than heart disease, cancer and diabetes combined.  And studies have repeatedly shown that less than 4% of those who take opioid medication for pain become addicted.  They might develop a dependence or tolerance, but that occurs with many medications.

Physical “dependence” simply means that, if a drug or substance is stopped abruptly, the body will react by exhibiting withdrawal symptoms.  “Tolerance” occurs over time, as the dosage of some drugs might need to be adjusted as the body grows tolerant to its effects. Neither of these conditions is unique to opioids, nor are they necessarily indicative of addiction -- which is characterized by compulsive drug seeking behavior and use, despite harmful consequences.

Personally, I believe the question of addiction simply comes down to motive.  If your primary motive in taking opioids is to get high, you might be a drug addict.  If your only motive is pain relief and once that relief is achieved you do not increase the dose, you are not a drug addict.

Drug abuse is a complex social issue that has no easy fixes.  It should not, however, be confused with the medical management of chronic pain.  All life is precious and should be valued and protected, but not at the expense of others.

So, the next time your favorite TV show has a story line about someone going to the hospital and being transformed into a raving drug addict, or you hear yet another biased news story about opioids, do something about it.  You can help save lives by contacting the source of those fallacies and insisting that they tell the whole truth about the opioid crisis. Call them. Write a letter. Send an email.

We desperately need your voice, your prayers, your empathy and your compassion.

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Katie Burge lives in south Mississippi, which she calls a “a veritable wasteland” for pain treatment. 

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.

Do Anti-Opioid Ads Hammer Home Wrong Message?

By Pat Anson, Editor

People who take opioid pain medication are often accused of bad behavior – such as stealing, selling and diverting their drugs. Or being lost in a haze of opioid addiction.

Now pain patients are being depicted as self-destructive maniacs so hopelessly hooked on opioids they'll do anything for their next high.

Four government-sponsored ads released this week by the White House feature young people who deliberately and violently injure themselves to get opioid medication.

All four ads are cringe worthy.

Kyle smashes his hand with a hammer.

Chris breaks his arm by slamming a door on it.

Joe breaks his back when he crawls underneath a car and lets it fall right on top of him.

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“They gave me Vicodin after my knee surgery," says Amy in the 4th ad. "They kept prescribing it, so I kept taking it.  I didn’t know it would be this addictive. I didn’t know how far I’d go to get more."

Amy then unbuckles her seat belt and drives her car into a garbage dumpster.

“Opioid addiction can happen after just five days. Know the truth, spread the truth,” an announcer solemnly warns.

The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy partnered with the Ad Council and the Truth Initiative to launch “The Truth About Opioids” campaign. The four 30-second ads are based on real life stories.

“After testing 150 different messages, we are all excited to launch four hyper-realistic ads that show true stories — not fictionalized and not embellished — true stories of four young adults who took extreme measures to get more prescription pills in order to feed their addiction,” said White House counselor Kellyanne Conway.

“The goal is for other young adults to see these ads and ask themselves how they can prevent their lives and others’ lives from going down a similar path.  We hope these ads will spark conversation to educate teens and young adults to talk to their doctors about alternatives to opioids.”

The White House was vague about when and where the ads will run, and dodged questions about how much the campaign will cost taxpayers. Most of the productions costs and airtime are being donated by Facebook, YouTube, Google, NBCUniversal and other media partners.

Like the CDC’s recent Rx Awareness Campaign, the four commercials focus exclusively on opioid prescriptions, while ignoring the rising death toll taken by illicit fentanyl and heroin. It is also rare for anyone to become addicted to opioid medication after a few days, as the ads suggest.

A recent report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) warned that fentanyl and other black market opioids are now involved in more fatal overdoses than opioid medication. Drugs used to treat depression and anxiety are also linked to more deaths than painkillers. SAMHSA said that “widespread public health messaging is needed” about the rapidly changing nature of the overdose crisis.

Why then the continued focus on pain medication?  

“The fact is that the greatest amounts of misuse are happening among 18- to 24-year-olds.  Almost 6 million young people a year get prescribed opioids.  They are initiated into this.  And we know that most long-term heroin addiction starts among young people through a first experience with opioids.  So that is what we’re focusing on here because there is great need,” said Robin Koval, CEO and President of Truth Initiative.

But a recent study of high school heroin users found that most abuse a wide variety of substances – not just painkillers. Alcohol was the most common drug abused, followed by marijuana, ecstasy, LSD and other psychedelics, cocaine, amphetamines and tranquilizers. 

“The Truth About Opioids” campaign makes no mention of those other drugs.

"It may be inadequate to focus on heroin and opioid use in isolation,” said lead author Joseph Palamar, PhD, a  professor of population health at NYU School of Medicine. "A deeper understanding of how heroin users also currently use other drugs can help us to discern better prevention measures."

I Wasn’t Looking for Addiction, I Wanted Pain Relief

By Denise Pascal, Guest Columnist

Five botched back operations, a cracked pubic bone and fibromyalgia led me to OxyContin 20 years ago.

I stayed with my doctor for 15 of those years, voluntarily titrating my dosage down from an initial 280mg of OxyContin a day to only 40mg.

Last June, my doctor suddenly decided to take me off opioids. I was given 6 WEEKS to get off Oxy with nothing for my pain or the effects of rapid titration off opioids. 

I now have to fight for my prescription lidocaine patches (which insurance doesn’t cover), my nightly Ambien and two lousy valiums for panic attacks.

My body is completely confused. Everyday feels like I am moving through mud. The pain is indescribable. Everyday things I could do last year on Oxy are gone. I can’t grocery shop. I can’t walk my dog. If something falls on the floor, it stays there because I can’t bend from the knees due to osteoarthritis.

For ten months I have had diarrhea, my brain is totally confused, and even simple tasks like paying bills are overwhelming. THIS IS YOUR BRAIN NOT ON DRUGS.

DENISE PASCAL

DENISE PASCAL

My withdrawal cost me almost $5 thousand in out-of-pocket expenses from visits to random specialists to manage my symptoms, prescriptions, and people I have had to hire to do simple errands.

This is what happens to those of us left with no family who can’t function. I am over 62 and have been legally disabled since 42. I wasn’t looking for an addiction, I was looking for relief. We were caught in a net by people who abused a drug that gave us some semblance of normalcy.

Suicide enters my thoughts often now. I can’t stand the pain. And just maybe that was the desired end result of this false narrative. 

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Denise Pascal lives in New Mexico.

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.

What Every Patient Should Know About NarxCare

By Rochelle Odell, Columnist

Walmart and Sam’s Club recently announced that by the end of August their pharmacists will start using NarxCare, a prescription tracking tool that analyzes real-time data about opioids and other controlled substances from Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs (PDMP’s).

Recent studies question the value of PDMP’s, but 49 states have implemented them so that physicians, pharmacists and insurers can see a patient's medication history. Granted, there is a need for monitoring the select few who doctor shop and/or abuse their medications, albeit that number is only in the 2 percent range.

What is NarxCare? Appriss Health developed NarxCare as a “robust analytics tool” to help “care teams” (doctors, pharmacists, etc.) identify patients with substance use disorders. Each patient is evaluated and given a “risk score” based on their prescription drug history. According to Appriss, a patient is much more willing to discuss their substance abuse issues once they are red flagged as a possible abuser.

“NarxCare automatically analyzes PDMP data and a patient’s health history and provides patient risk scores and an interactive visualization of usage patterns to help identify potential risk factors,” the company says on its website.

“NarxCare aids care teams in clinical decision making, provides support to help prevent or manage substance use disorder, and empowers states with the comprehensive platform they need to take to the next step in the battle against prescription drug addiction."

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Sounds great doesn't it? Except prescription drugs are not the problem and never really have been. Illicit drug use has, is, and will continue to be the main cause of the addiction and overdose crisis. 

Even the name NarxCare has a negative connotation. “Narx” stands for narcotics. And in today's environment, narcotics is a very negative word. NarxCare makes me feel like a narcotics police officer is just around the corner.

Each patient evaluated by NarxCare gets a “Narx Report” that includes their NarxScores, Overdose Risk Score, Rx Graph, PDMP Data and my favorite, the Red Flags. The scores are based on the past two years of a patient’s prescription history, as well as their medical claims, electronic health records and even their criminal history.

Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Iowa, and several other states are using NarxCare to supplement their own PDMPs. And Walmart isn’t the only big retail company to adopt it. Kroger, Ralphs, Kmart, CVS, Rite Aid and Walgreens are already using NarxCare. There’s a good chance your prescriptions are already being tracked by NarxCare and you don’t even know it.

But NarxCare doesn’t just analyze opioid prescriptions. It also tracks other controlled substances, such as antidepressants, sedatives and stimulants. If a patient is on any combination of those drugs, their risk scores and their chances of being red flagged will be higher – even if they’ve been safely taking the medications for years.

There are several other ways a patient can be red flagged, such as having multiple doctors or pharmacies. But what if you moved and changed physicians? What if you had the same physician for many years and he/she retired or moved away? What if your pharmacy refused to fill your prescription and you had to go pharmacy hunting every month? What if you had dental surgery and your dentist placed you on a short-term pain medication?

Unfortunately, the NarxCare scores do not reflect any of that. How can raw data on prescription medications be an indicator of abuse? I believe there is some merit in tracking and weeding out the rare abuser, but NarxCare doesn't factor in all the “what if’s” that can happen to law-abiding and responsible patients. 

As pain patients, we need to be acutely aware of the negative impact this analytics tool can have. Many of us have already been required to sign pain contracts, take drugs tests, and undergo pill counts. In 2019, Medicare will adopt policies making it even harder for patients to get high doses of opioid medication. Some insurers are already doing it. We're already being policed enough as it is.

I intend to ask my physician, pharmacist and case manager if they utilize NarxCare. So should you. If they say yes, ask them why. Ask your doctor if they believe you are at risk for substance use disorder. Why is their judgement and treatment of you being second guessed by anyone?

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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.

Overdose Crisis Boosts Organ Donations

By Pat Anson, Editor

Drug overdose deaths have reached unprecedented levels in the United States, with over 63-thousand people dying in 2016 from overdoses involving antidepressants, illicit fentanyl, heroin, prescription opioids and other drugs.

Those deaths have led to an unexpected gift for thousands of Americans who needed organ transplants. Researchers at University of Utah Health and Brigham and Women's Hospital say there has been a steady increase in the number of organs available for transplantation – due in large part to the escalating overdose crisis. They documented an 11-fold increase in the proportion of organ donors who died of drug overdoses from 2000 to 2016.

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"We were surprised to learn that almost all of the increased transplant activity in the United States within the last five years is a result of the drug overdose crisis," said Mandeep Mehra, MD, medical director of the Heart and Vascular Center at Brigham and Women's Hospital and lead author of a research letter published in The New England Journal of Medicine.

Mehra and his colleagues examined transplantation records and found no significant change in the recipients' chance of survival when the organ donation came from an overdose victim. The survival rate of 2,360 patients after receiving a heart or lung transplant from donors who died from overdoses was no different than those who received organs from donors who died from gunshot wounds, asphyxiation, head injuries or stroke.

There has long been a stigma against using donated organs from overdose victims because the organs may be damaged due to reduced oxygen supply that may occur during an overdose. There are also fears the organs could be infected with HIV, hepatitis or other communicable diseases due to high rates of intravenous drug use by overdose victims. As a result, some organs harvested from overdose donors are discarded.

But researchers say those risks can be minimized with modern testing.

"I feel hopeful that doctors across the country will read this and feel confident that organs that pass the required tests are safe for transplant," said Josef Stehlik, MD, medical director of the Heart Transplant Program at University of Utah Health. "This awareness is especially important when organ procurement professionals have to decide on use of potential donors with this high-risk history."

The United Network for Organ Sharing requires organ recipients to be made aware of the circumstances of higher risk donations, so they can decide whether or not to accept it. There are nearly 115,000 Americans currently waiting for an organ donation, including many who have been on the waiting list for years.

"We must look to new ways to increase organ donor recovery by concentrating on greater use of marginal organs or by expanding the suitable donor pool by using new technologies to improve organ function before the transplant takes place," Mehra said.

A similar study recently published in the Annals of Internal Medicine also found an increase in the proportion of organ donors who died from an overdose. In 2000, only 1.1% of donors were overdose victims. By 2017, that grew to 13.4 percent.

"For people waiting on an organ transplant right now, I would like to think that our studies bring them hope that they could receive a transplant and have more donors that could help them," Dr. Christine Durand, a professor of medicine and oncology at Johns Hopkins University, told CNN. "We have an obligation to optimize the use of all organs donated. The donors, families and patients waiting deserve our best effort to use every gift of life we can."

Growing Abuse of Gabapentin

By Christine Vestal, Stateline

Doctors who are cutting back on prescribing opioids increasingly are opting for gabapentin, a safer, non-narcotic drug recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

By doing so, they may be putting their opioid-using patients at even greater risk.

Recently, gabapentin has started showing up in a substantial number of overdose deaths in hard-hit Appalachian states. The neuropathic (nerve-related) pain reliever was involved in more than a third of Kentucky overdose deaths last year.

Drug users say gabapentin pills, known as “johnnies” or “gabbies,” which often sell for less than a dollar each, enhance the euphoric effects of heroin and when taken alone in high doses can produce a marijuana-like high.

Medical researchers stress that more study is needed to determine the role gabapentin may have played in recent overdose deaths. However, a study of heroin users in England and Wales published last fall concluded that combining opioids and gabapentin “potentially increases the risk of acute overdose death” by hampering breathing and reversing users’ tolerance to heroin and other powerful opioids.

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Kentucky last year classified gabapentin as a controlled substance, making it harder for doctors to prescribe it in copious quantities and for long durations. The new classification also allows police to arrest anyone who illicitly sells the drug, although the state’s drug control chief, Van Ingram, said that was not the intent of the new law.

In the last two years, Illinois, Ohio, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Tennessee, Virginia and Wyoming also have moved to control the flow of gabapentin by requiring doctors and pharmacists to check a prescription drug database before prescribing it to patients to make sure they aren’t already receiving gabapentin, or some other medication that interacts with it, from another physician.

In a statement to Stateline, Pfizer communications director Steven Danehy said, “Reports of misuse and abuse with this class of medicines are limited and typically involve patients with a prior history of substance abuse, including opioids.”

The drugmaker also pledged to “continue working with regulatory authorities and health officials to evaluate and monitor the safety of these medicines.”

Prescribed for Many Conditions

Approved by the FDA in 1993 for the treatment of epilepsy and the nerve pain associated with shingles, gabapentin is sold by Pfizer under the brand name Neurontin. A generic form of the drug has been available since 2004 and is now sold by several other companies as well.

Gabapentin is now one of the most popular prescription drugs in the United States, according to the New England Journal of Medicine. It was the 10th-most-prescribed medication in 2016. Its more expensive cousin, pregabalin, sold as Lyrica and also made by Pfizer, was the eighth best-selling.

Many doctors recommend gabapentin to patients for a long list of disorders, including hot flashes, migraines, restless leg syndrome, fibromyalgia, and neuropathic pain associated with diabetes and spinal injuries. Some doctors also prescribe it for anxiety and insomnia.

Now, research is underway to determine whether gabapentin may be effective as a treatment for alcoholism.

Already, it is widely used to ease the symptoms of drug and alcohol detoxification. And addiction specialists routinely use gabapentin to manage pain in people who are either addicted or at risk of addiction to opioids and other substances.

Alone, high doses of gabapentin have not been found to affect breathing. The vast majority of gabapentin deaths, about 4 in 5, also involved opioids, according to the journal Addiction.

People who stop taking the medication abruptly, however, can suffer withdrawal symptoms such as trembling, sweats and agitation.

In February, Food and Drug Administration director Scott Gottlieb said the agency was reviewing the misuse of gabapentin and, for now, had determined no action was necessary. Similarly, the CDC has not issued a warning about gabapentin, nor has the Drug Enforcement Administration.

(Editor's note: the CDC opioid guidelines recommend gabapentin without any mention of the risk of abuse or overdose associated with the drug, or of possible side effects such as weight gain, anxiety and mood disorders.)

Early Signs of Abuse

In Kentucky, Ingram said it has been clear to police and pharmacists for the last three or four years that gabapentin was becoming an increasingly popular street drug. “People were seeking early refills, claiming they lost their prescriptions and openly conducting transactions in parking lots outside of drug stores,” he said.

But since it wasn’t a controlled substance, nothing was done about it. That’s likely to start changing with the new law, he said.

“Misuse of gabapentin is just one more collateral effect of the opioid epidemic,” said Caleb Alexander, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University who has been studying the heroin and prescription drug epidemic. When one drug becomes less available, drug users historically seek out alternatives, he said. “What is most surprising is the sheer magnitude of its use.”

The share of Appalachian drug users who reported using gabapentin to get high increased nearly 30-fold from 2008 to 2014, according to a 2015 study in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

Paul Earley, an addiction doctor practicing in Georgia and a board member of the American Society of Addiction Medicine, said, “We knew that a small subset of our addiction patients would abuse gabapentin.” But he said it wasn’t until 2016, when Ohio sounded an alarm about the drug’s association with overdose deaths, that addiction doctors started taking the problem more seriously.

“For years, we considered gabapentin to be ‘good for what ails you,’” Earley said. “But I’m much more cautious than I used to be. If there’s anything we’ve learned from the opioid epidemic, it’s that we need to rethink how we prescribe drugs we once assumed were safe.”

This is story is republished with permission by Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts.