Medical Cannabis Won’t Solve the Opioid Crisis

By Roger Chriss, PNN Columnist

Medical cannabis legalization isn’t helping reduce opioid overdoses. Two major studies have closely examined over a decade’s worth of data, finding no support for the idea that legalizing medical cannabis reduces prescription opioid use, overdose or mortality.

In June, Stanford researchers led by Chelsea Shover, PhD, published a study in PNAS using the same methodology as a 2014 JAMA study that found a positive association between cannabis legalization and lower opioid mortality from 1999 to 2010. But Shover and colleagues included more recent data and states with legalized medical cannabis.

“Our expanded analysis does not support the interpretation that broader access to cannabis is associated with lower opioid overdose mortality,” they concluded.

The 2014 study was very cautious in its findings, but cannabis advocates and industry representatives used it to support legalization efforts.

“It’s become such a pervasive idea,” Shover told STAT News. “It would be amazing if it was this simple, but the evidence is telling us now that it’s not.”

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Early this month, Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health published a new study in JAMA Network Open that looked at whether people use cannabis in place of prescription opioids.  Researchers looked at data from 627,000 people aged 12 years and older who took the National Survey on Drug Use and Health from 2004 to 2014.

The results showed that enactment of medical marijuana laws was not associated with a reduction in prescription opioid abuse, contradicting the hypothesis that people would substitute marijuana for prescription opioids.

“We tested this relationship and found no evidence that the passage of medical marijuana laws — even in states with dispensaries — was associated with a decrease in individual opioid use of prescription opioids for nonmedical purposes," said senior author Silvia Martins, MD, PhD, an associate professor of epidemiology at Columbia.

The Shover-PNAS study also made the important point that medical cannabis users comprise only about 2.5% of the U.S. population. The vast majority of cannabis use is recreational. The Washington State Liquor Control and Cannabis Board estimates that only about 20% of so-called medical users are really using cannabis for medical reasons.

In other words, there aren’t enough medical cannabis users to impact nationwide overdose trends. And in state-level analysis, there is no evidence of any substantial effect, positive or negative, from medical cannabis legalization.

There are concerns that cannabis could actually make the opioid crisis worse. A 2018 study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that “cannabis use appears to increase rather than decrease the risk of developing nonmedical prescription opioid use and opioid use disorder.”

Scientific evidence does not support claims that marijuana helps people kick opioids.
— Dr. Nora Volkow, NIDA Director

"My main concern is by basically misinforming potential patients about the supposedly beneficial effects of cannabis, they may forgo a treatment that is lifesaving," NIDA director Nora Volkow, MD, told USA Today. “Scientific evidence does not support claims that marijuana helps people kick opioids.”

The FDA is taking note, warning a large cannabis operator last week to stop making unsubstantiated claims that its products can treat chronic pain, cancer, opioid withdrawal and other medical conditions.

Medical cannabis has uses, of course, but taking it for conditions it is not proven to help may lead to harms. Perhaps a way can be found to incorporate cannabis in addiction treatment, but that is quite different from expecting medical cannabis legalization to be an exit ramp for the opioid crisis.

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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.

Addiction and the 2020 Presidential Race

By Dr. Lynn Webster, PNN Columnist

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

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

Drugs, Politicians and Their Families

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Do Candidates Know?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Decriminalizing the use of drugs?

  • Acknowledging addiction is a disease?

  • Understanding that babies cannot be born addicted?

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

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

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

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

Shining a Light on Addiction

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

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

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

You can find him on Twitter: @LynnRWebsterMD.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Finding Safe Shores From Suicidal Thoughts

By Mia Maysack, PNN columnist

When you have lost or almost lost loved ones to suicide, it changes you.  

My first experience with this happened at a young age and I took it very personally, even though it was an intimate, personal decision that didn't involve me. I guess that is one of the things that hurt most about it.  

Time passed, life was experienced and as my health conditions worsened, I found myself on the stone-cold ground of rock bottom -- which granted me a bittersweet comprehension of the temptations to end never-ending pain.

Years later, someone I cared for took her own life, after secretly enduring the late stages of terminal cancer. I’d witnessed that kind of suffering before during my days working in hospice care. This further reshaped my mind around the concept.

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Of course, none of us want to lose anyone, especially in a way such as this, but the question does remain.  Which could be considered more “selfish” -- someone eliminating their life or someone else not wanting them to?

“I want to leave this earth because I feel as though I just can't do it anymore. It truly has nothing to do with anyone else. I am solely human and have reached my absolute breaking point.  Ultimately, I make my own decisions -- though it’s impossible to comprehend the ripple effect my actions will have on others.”

“I don't want you to leave this earth because I care so much about you. I know you feel as though you cannot do this anymore, but I am here for you and have a difficult time understanding why that isn't enough. I would do anything to ease your suffering. There are others who care and need you, so stick around for their sake.”   

The dialogue may as well be night and day, two entirely different realities.  Both lack consideration for the other on either end of the spectrum.  

Some pain sufferers may not have even one support person in their lives who they can turn to when the going gets tough, yet many seem to think the best way to deal with suicide is by not talking about it. They fear that by discussing it and making it real, somehow that will trigger chaos and we'll begin dropping like flies once the seed has been planted. 

The intent of this article is the exact opposite.

Recently I took part in a class where this topic was discussed in a small group session. To my left was a person who had been in pain their entire life. They were over it, pun fully intended, literally in the process of orchestrating a move to someplace where assisted suicide is legal. 

To my right was someone also in pain, who was squeamish about the subject and could not begin to relate to it.

Then there was me, a splash of irony right there in the middle.

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Not too long ago, I took a mental health day at a local beach along Lake Michigan. When I am able to swim, my skills are strong. But as I approached my targeted distance, weather conditions shifted and I was both pulled under and pushed back. It was as though I'd been swept into a riptide and under current at the same time.  

At this point, I was exhausted and in low temperature water far longer than anticipated. Swirling thoughts crashed into my mind, much like the waves that had begun to cover my face. If I'm not able to move into shore I will die.

I've made it through worse, and there's no way this is how it's going to end-- not without a fight. So I powered through the water at full force until I felt as I could no longer – which is when the tip of my toes could finally touch the sand bar.  With a touch of hypothermia and major shock to the system, I made it.     

This is everyday life with chronic pain and illness. The emotions can submerge and escort us to the very edge of sanity, a tsunami that can swallow us whole and leave us fighting for every breath. Sometimes these ailments are much like anchors on our feet, shackling us to inevitable trenches of darkness and gloom.    

Many who can relate to these experiences are traumatized by judgmental stigma, so it's important that we acknowledge it is not only understandable but also normal to feel defeated. 

Observing these feelings as opposed to just absorbing them is a way of co-existence. The relationship with oneself is critical. At some of our lowest points, it is within us to choose the direction of our sails and head to safer shores.   

When navigating the treachery of these waters, our pursuit of quality of life against all odds presents itself as proof that we can make it through this and that we're in it together. We just gotta Keep Our Heads Up!  

If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, PLEASE REACH OUT 

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Mia Maysack lives with chronic migraine, cluster headaches and fibromyalgia. Mia is the founder of Keepin’ Our Heads Up, a Facebook advocacy and support group, and Peace & Love, a wellness and life coaching practice for the chronically ill.

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.

A Survival Guide for Opioid Withdrawal

By Crystal Lindell, PNN Columnist

Maybe your doctor cut off from your medications. Maybe you had a pain flare and ran out of pills a week before your next scheduled refill. Maybe you just don’t want to deal with opioids anymore because they’re harder to get than Beyonce tickets.

Whatever your reason for going off opioids, it’s likely you’ll have to deal with physical withdrawal — especially if you’ve been taking them for a while. But there are ways to minimize the symptoms.

I also would be remiss if I didn’t mention that my boyfriend, Chris — who also has chronic pain and gone through opioid withdrawal more than once — helped me compile and write this list.

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So from two people who’ve gone through it more than a few times, here is our opioid withdrawal survival guide:

1. Talk to a doctor first

If you have access to a doctor, and you feel comfortable doing so, talk to her about it. I’m not a doctor, I’m just a patient, so please keep that in mind with everything else I say.

2. Be aware of what the symptoms are

Know thy enemy, as they say. There are a lot of symptoms caused by opioid withdrawal that you may not be expecting — especially if your only reference point is pop culture. I like to say that opioids sort of shut down your systems, and withdrawal turns everything back on at full volume.

You’ll probably experience some or all the following, and they’ll likely start kicking in within about 24-48 hours.

  • Diarrhea

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Sneezing and runny nose

  • Anxiety and panic attacks

  • Fatigue (Your natural instinct may be to reach for caffeine or other stimulants, but be careful. They likely will just make your anxiety worse and it won’t touch your fatigue)

  • Insomnia

  • Sweating

  • Yawning and watery eyes

  • Restless legs (Your legs move on their own while you’re sitting or lying down. I know, I thought it was fake too, but it is very real and difficult to deal with).

  • Muscle aches

  • Goosebumps

  • Dilated pupils

  • Hyper-libido and increased sex drive (Remember, opioids turned off everything and withdrawal turns it back on)

  • Increased fertility (Being on opioids can make it difficult to get pregnant and withdrawal will have the opposite effect. If you want to avoid pregnancy, make sure to use birth control)

  • Thrill-seeking behavior and mood swings (As the ups of your day give way to the lows, you may find yourself seeking out risky behavior as a way to improve your mood and receive the adrenaline that you so desperately crave).

3. Suicidal thoughts

I wanted to pull this one out separately from the other symptoms because it’s potentially so dangerous.

There are a lot of news reports about opioid users who kill themselves after they get clean. Reporters often frame it as though the person got off opioids, took a look around and decided that what’s left of their life just wasn’t worth living. That’s not usually the case though. Withdrawal itself will make you suicidal.

The good news? Knowing it’s being caused by withdrawal and not by crappy life circumstances may make it easier to push through it.

The best way to combat this symptom is to know it might happen and have a plan in place to deal with it if does. I once went seven days without any opioids when I had a full-on, hours long anxiety attack and planned to kill myself. I eventually gave in and took just one small hydrocodone, and within an hour my mind and spirit had calmed.

Which brings me to my next piece of advice.

4. Taper, Taper, Taper

Popular culture has perpetuated the idea that quitting opioids is all about will power. That’s a bunch of B.S.

Most relapses occur because people don’t properly taper their dose. Regardless of why you take opioids, your body has likely gotten accustomed to having them, just like it would have gotten used to a heart medication.

The best and safest way to successfully get unaccustomed to opioids is to taper off them as slowly as possible.

What does that look like? Well, if you take five pills a day, go to four for a couple weeks (yes, weeks), then three, then two, then one, and then even half. I personally noticed a lot of symptoms even going from one pill a day to zero — so if you can split a pill in half, do that.

If you are using drugs illegally, tapering might look a little different. One thing you can do to taper is switch to a weaker drug. Another important step would be changing how you take it. So if you’re snorting it, switch to taking it orally as part of the tapering process. If you’re injecting, try taking it in any other fashion that will allow you to bridge the gap.

5. Consider using kratom

Of course, tapering only works if you still have access to pills or drugs. If you don’t — there’s still help available. Kratom is your new best friend. It will drastically reduce your withdrawal symptoms.

Personally, I think kratom is also a good long-term solution for chronic pain and is a lot milder than pharmaceutical-grade opioids. Assuming it’s legal in your state, kratom is much easier to get than opioids and does not require a prescription. You can get kratom online, at most smoke shops, and even some gas stations.

For the record, the FDA has not approved kratom for any medical condition — including addiction treatment. And some researchers say kratom is a public health threat because it is unregulated.

6. Consider using marijuana

If you can’t get kratom for whatever reason, marijuana will also help you taper down. Edibles in particular will help with insomnia, anxiety, muscle aches, and restless legs.

But beware, if you haven’t taken edibles before, even a very small dose may knock you out for a few hours.

7. OTC medications

There are some over-the-counter medications that will help reduce symptoms:

  • Imodium (to help with diarrhea and nausea)

  • Benadryl (to help with the sneezing and insomnia)

  • Tylenol (to help with aches and pains)

  • B1, B12, multivitamins and potassium (to help replenish what your body loses from the sweating and diarrhea, which is a huge step toward feeling better)

8. Avoid alcohol

You may be tempted to reach for a glass of wine or a shot of vodka to ease your symptoms — but trust me, they will just come roaring back even stronger after it quickly wears off. Try all other options before you resort to a stiff drink.

9. Consider Suboxone and methadone

Depending on what you were taking and for how long, you may not be able to get through withdrawal without medication assistance treatment.

Suboxone (buprenorphine) and methadone are two opioid medications that can help you through withdrawal, and they are medically proven to be effective. You’ll have to get both from a doctor, and they may not be covered by insurance. But they may also be your best shot at getting off opioids long-term.

10. Don’t go back to your old dose

You start off strong. You tell yourself you’ll never take even one more hydrocodone again. But seven days later, the hell of withdrawal has finally beaten you down enough that you decide it’s just not worth it.

It’s okay. It happens. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person.

BUT DO NOT TAKE YOUR OLD DOSE!

I can’t be clear enough about this. In just one short week, your body’s tolerance levels have already shifted. And your old dose is going to hit you like a freight train. It may even be strong enough to kill you.

Sadly, this is how a lot of opioid users die. They assume their bodies can handle the same fentanyl patch they were using just a short seven days ago, and it’s suddenly way too strong. This can also happen when someone goes through a formal rehab program, gets out and goes right back to their old dose. It’s enough to stop their breathing.

You may have heard of this phenomenon when it comes to celebrity deaths, like Cory Monteith from Glee. As it explains on Monteith’s Wikipedia page: “After a period of cessation from opioid drug use, a previously tolerated drug concentration level may become toxic and fatal.”

In other words, he was just clean enough for the opioids to kill him.

Even if you’re used to a small dose, like 60mg of hydrocodone a day, once you’ve gone through a couple days of withdrawal, those 60mg are going to hit you incredibly hard.

11. Have Narcan on hand

Along those same lines, I highly recommend you have Narcan (naloxone) on hand just in case, as it can reverse the symptoms of an overdose and potentially save your life. In many states you can even it get it over-the-counter, without a prescription.

Narcan is one of those things you think you’ll never need until you need it. I keep a dose in my house because I regularly take prescription opioids and I want to be as safe as possible. Even if you don’t personally need it, you never know if a child or someone else might find your medications. And you’ll want to have it on hand if that happens.

12. Remember it’s a marathon

In the movies, withdrawal is like three days and then you’re healed. Even though most of the physical symptoms will be gone in about a week, you can still have withdrawal symptoms for up to two years.

It’s called Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS) and it can include things like panic attacks, insomnia, restless legs, anxiety, risk taking behavior and suicidal thoughts.

13. Get help from family and friends

It’s so important to have a least a couple friends or family members around to help you through it. My best friend and my boyfriend are my go-to because I know they won’t judge me and they’ll be supportive.

If you have the option to be around another person as much as possible, definitely do that. They can help take your mind off the physical symptoms and help you cope with the long-term psychological ones you may experience. Anxiety is a lot easier to deal with when you’re hanging out with your best friend.

14. Find a therapist you trust

If you were getting opioids with a legitimate prescription from a legitimate doctor, you may not think you need long-term addiction treatment. But you still have a medical condition that warranted a long-term opioid prescription. That means you probably would benefit from having a therapist to talk to about how you’re coping with all of that.

Your doctor may be able to refer you to someone, and Psychology Today also has a decent directory. These days, you can even do it all online, with sites like Better Help, which offers access to counselors via phone and text.

I also personally found a low-dose SSRI helpful for dealing with the long-term anxiety and panic attacks, so you may want to talk to your doctor about an antidepressant or anti-anxiety medication.

15. Don’t be too hard on yourself

You’re doing better than you think you’re doing, I promise.

And we’re all rooting for you. You’ve got this.

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Crystal Lindell is a journalist who lives in Illinois. She eats too much Taco Bell, drinks too much espresso, and spends too much time looking for the perfect pink lipstick. Crystal has hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. 

Crystal writes about it on her blog, “The Only Certainty is Bad Grammar.”

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

When I Call Myself Disabled

By Barby Ingle, PNN Columnist

Recently an interesting hashtag started trending on Twitter: #WhenICallMyselfDisabled.

Cassie, a friend who also has chronic pain, sent me a message to make sure that I had seen it. I am so glad she did because it sparked something in me that I didn’t even know I had an opinion about.

There are so many people in the chronic pain community and we all have different disabilities, diseases, genetics, treatments, healthcare, etc. Even people with the same diseases and conditions can have different levels of disability.

There are many legal and governmental definitions of disability. For example, to qualify for Social Security disability, a person must have a physical or mental impairment that has lasted or is expected to last at least 12 months and which prevents them from doing a "substantial” amount of work.  

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The American with Disabilities Act broadly defines disability as a physical or mental condition that substantially limits one or more major life activity.

Often healthy people have a tough time understanding what we live with or the challenges we face on a daily basis. That’s where #WhenICallMyselfDisabled comes in. It can help us explain our own personal definitions of disability and how being disabled impacts our lives.  

The first time I pulled up the hashtag on Twittter, I didn’t plan on sharing it. I was just reading through various tweets when my personal lightbulb went off. When did I start considering myself disabled? How do I define it?

Here’s how I responded on Twitter:

Here's how some people responded to my Tweet:

 It's a life of pure hell isn't it? This is called living???😟😟😥

Oh, I can so relate hun. 💟

Me three. I’m tired & in constant pain. Don’t make me wait in lines, stand at counters, walk stairs, etc. It’s not cuz I’m lazy I gd walked 4,000 miles once! But of course, everyone assumes it’s cuz I’m unmotivated & they hope that pushing my limits is tough love lesson I need.  

I later went to Facebook and shared a longer version of my Twitter message:

#WhenICallMyselfDisabled it’s because I do not know when I will be able to physically attend an event or have to leave early due to lights, noise, fatigue, having a seizure, a pain flare that no 1 can see but levels me, migraine, having an asthma attack from walking or smoke... I could go on, when was the last time I slept, when is the last time I vomited from the pain, is my hand working or is the dystonia attacking today. I could go on and on!

I call myself disabled because I can’t sing, dance and cheer the way I used to. I could go on and on... Despite being disabled, I do my best to be my best and be the best me I can be. Being disabled just means it takes me longer, I have to find another way to accomplish things in life, I still have value and worth.

I didn’t know if my Facebook message would resonate or not.  I just had a feeling how powerful this hashtag could be in helping others understand we may look normal and fully functioning, but don’t take our looks for granted. Here are a few tweets I saw after my post on Facebook.

#WhenICallMyselfDisabled I am acknowledging that my body is different but normal.

#WhenICallMyselfDisabled I feel like I finally really understand my body and mind and can accept them as they are. I have so much more confidence moving through the world, and acceptance (from myself) that the accommodations I need aren't laziness or selfishness.  

My Facebook message received more than 80 likes, comments and shares, so I know it resonated with my pain friends and “non-disabled” friends. It was an outpouring of support and helped lift stigmas that society often puts on people who need some extra help, assistance or time.  

Knowing that no matter what disability I have that I still have value and worth makes me feel so much better. I’m glad the hashtag trended. It could have been a pity hashtag, but I found it to be socially educational and meaningful. I am glad so many others joined in before and after me. A message like this can go a long way to change how we are viewed.  

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Barby Ingle lives with reflex sympathetic dystrophy (RSD), migralepsy and endometriosis. Barby is a chronic pain educator, patient advocate, and president of the International Pain FoundationShe is also a motivational speaker and best-selling author on pain topics.

More information about Barby can be found at her website.  

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.

‘Trapped in a Bottle’ Billboard Misses the Mark

By Dr. Lynn Webster, PNN Columnist

The mission of The Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey (PDFNJ) is to reduce substance use and misuse in New Jersey. The non-profit has received more than 200 advertising and public relations awards for its public service campaigns.

Much of the organization’s work is laudable, but their new "Trapped in a Bottle" campaign spreads misleading and harmful information about opioid medication.

Digital billboards of a man or woman trapped in a prescription bottle appeared in Times Square and on mass transit. The billboards end with a warning: “In just 5 days, opioid dependency can begin.”

Physical Dependence vs. Addiction

The ad talks about dependency, but it conflates dependency with addiction.

Physical dependence is a process that starts with exposure to the first pill. Discontinuance of an opioid may lead to withdrawal — but the hyperbolic ad can easily be mistaken to be about addiction rather than dependency.

Dependency is a normal neuroadaptation that takes place when certain brain receptors are exposed to drugs, including opioids. These drugs change the structure and function of a receptor with continual exposure, and that can result in physical dependence. If the drugs are abruptly stopped, that can cause withdrawal.

Using opioid medication for as little as five days will almost never induce withdrawal. And even if withdrawal occurs after taking a short course of opioids, it does not mean the person is addicted or has an opioid-use disorder.

The "5 days" concept is meaningless because it spreads unhelpful myths about opioids. I have prescribed opioids to thousands of patients and have never seen a patient experience withdrawal when stopping within a week or even two. Managed properly, the overwhelming majority of patients experience no negative effects from dependency.

Addiction, on the other hand, requires much more than simply ingesting a pill, and it does not occur in any specific number of days. The development of this disease is a process that involves multiple factors and occurs over time.

It is important to remember that addiction is not resident in the drug, but rather in human biology. Exposure to an opioid is a necessary, but by itself is insufficient to cause the disease.

For people who develop an addiction, opioids provide a reward, and the brain seeks to repeat the pleasurable experience. For a vulnerable person, one pill can be so rewarding that it drives pleasure-seeking behavior that can lead to addiction. But that does not happen in five days or on any other timetable.

This is not the first time PDFNJ has created over-the-top digital billboards to scare people away from using prescription opioids.

A 2016 billboard intended to frighten parents asked: "Would you give your child HEROIN to remove a wisdom tooth?"

This melodramatic question was followed with: “Ask your dentist how prescription drugs can lead to heroin abuse." The innuendo is neither educational nor informative.

It's understandable that an advertising agency would have trouble accurately conveying the problems of drug dependence and addiction when the news media also has difficulty communicating the facts.

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Inaccurate Portrayal of the Opioid Crisis

In a recent WPIX article describing the “Trapped in a Bottle” campaign, Mary Murphy wrote that “drug overdoses killed more than 72,000 people in the United States in 2017, a new record driven by the deadly opioid crisis.”

Murphy used the statistic to help illustrate the harm of prescription opioids. But prescription opioids were involved in less than 20,000 of those drug deaths. If Murphy wanted to use a large number, she should have said there were 150,000 deaths from substance abuse in 2018. This would include alcohol-related deaths. Of course, alcohol delivers its poison in a bottle, too.

Murphy writes that a large percentage of drug overdoses can be attributed to heroin or fentanyl. Indeed, these are major sources of opioid deaths, but she fails to point out that neither heroin or illicit fentanyl are prescription opioids. Nor are they commonly found in a bottle. Again, her implication is that prescription opioids are at the heart of this crisis.

Concepts Video Productions, which is based in Towaco, New Jersey, produced the digital billboard. “Each year, we select a pro-bono project that will impact the world,” said Collette Liantonio, creative director of the production company.

The “Trapped in a Bottle” billboard, however, may do nothing for the world besides demonstrate how imperfectly most people understand the reason for the drug crisis and reinforce prevalent myths about it.

Perhaps Concepts Video Productions should consider creating a billboard that shows someone who is unable to find a job that pays a decent wage, and seeks to escape poverty and hopelessness with drugs. Economic and social woes, rather than prescription drugs, are at the core of our country's drug crisis.

Or perhaps Concepts Video Productions should create a giant digital billboard full of people with chronic pain who can’t get out of bed because their doctors refuse to prescribe the medication they need.

Using fear to solve the drug crisis will never be successful.

Moreover, knowing a drug's potential to lead to physical dependence or addiction will not prevent anyone from seeking a psychological experience to escape painful life experiences. The answer is to address the emotional and physical needs that create dependency or addiction in the first place.

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

You can find him on Twitter: @LynnRWebsterMD.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Invisible Illness and Disability

By Mia Maysack, PNN Columnist

A final once over in the mirror. I straighten my navy-blue blazer and fastened the top button on the very first dress shirt I've ever owned, reflecting upon how grueling the process has been.

Pursuing a disability case was an absolute last option for me.  Being a contributing part of the workforce is something I not only enjoyed very much, but it made up part of my identity.

There were moments I was unsure if I'd even make it to this point, but I'm grateful to have an opportunity to exercise the right to represent myself at my disability hearing without a lawyer.

When sharing this viewpoint with others, I've mostly been advised against it but the route of legal assistance proved a dead end for me (see “Taking Control of My Disability Case”). Other recommendations included: Do not smile or dress nice, don't show much personality at all, or mention hobbies like volunteering because it could be considered contradictory to my claims.

Being differently enabled does not make me any less of a person so I refuse to act as such. It’s frustrating to feel as though you've got to convince others of your truth and, as hard as you try, they still may not “get it.”

I'm aware that my illnesses aren't visible to outsiders and because of that they are questioned. I showed up to provide an authentic glimpse as to what invisible illness can look like and how it has impacted my life.

I live in a constant state of post-infection intractable chronic migraine -- head pain that has never gone away since the year 2000. This pain is expected to be life-long and incurable.

There are also daily cluster headache attacks, which are an entirely different beast. The cherry on top comes in the form of my nerves being hyperactive, resulting in a diagnosis of fibromyalgia.

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These conditions fluctuate. One day looks different than the next, but even at my absolute best there is still pain. Things can turn for the worse at any moment without warning and constant breaks are required for even simple tasks. I am not able to function optimally in a gainful work place environment, despite my countless attempts at trying.  

Between the nausea/vomiting, light sensitivity/vision disturbances, persistent fatigue, brain fogginess and the on-going discomfort, there hasn't been a single aspect of my life that has not been negatively impacted: relationships, activities of daily living, employment, higher education,  goals, dreams, aspirations....

I prolonged beginning the disability process due to the fact that I'm aware so many have it worse than me. I am thankful for my senses, mobility, the fact I can use the restroom on my own and feed myself, although there are periods daily when I can be entirely incapacitated.

Over the years, 34 prescriptions have been written for me -- all worsening matters as a result of the side effects. About 1,800 injections have been administered.

I now take full responsibility for my own wellness and have completely revamped my lifestyle to accommodate my conditions. I’ve also found a new passion for patient advocacy as a way to find a purpose in all of the agony, leading to the reality that I am my own best expert. It's empowering to be armed with knowledge on behalf of the millions who live with headache and migraine disorders.

While conveying this information at my hearing, I experienced more emotion than anticipated, especially when a friend took the stand to provide testimony as a witness. She reminisced on how we used to go dancing together and described how we could be so carefree. But over the years what seemed to have started as a slight hindrance turned into an everyday occurrence, rippling into less and less quality time spent. This took a toll on us both.  

I can only hope it came across that migraine matters, that it burdens us all, and everyone should care about disabilities because it only takes a slight change in circumstance to alter your life forever. I didn't choose to struggle every day with getting out of bed, to have much of my time flat out stolen, or to have many memories tainted by the relentlessness of my chronic pain.  

While awaiting word back on a decision, I cannot help but wonder. How many more times will they want to see and hear from me? I've already come thus far and I'm not giving up! 

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Mia Maysack lives with chronic migraine, cluster headaches and fibromyalgia. Mia is the founder of Keepin’ Our Heads Up, a Facebook advocacy and support group, and Peace & Love, a wellness and life coaching practice for the chronically ill.

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.