The inspiration for this post was a story I just read about the "victims" of the crackdown on opioids. A number of chronic pain patients were described who were only able to get pain relief from opioids. They discussed being limited to arbitrary reductions in medications or monthly limits imposed by politicians. In some cases the people taking pain medications were being treated like criminals. They don't like being treated on the basis of people who are addicted to opioids. I did a more extensive search and there are several articles out there like this. The general tone of the article is that there are tens or millions of people out there with chronic pain and that since many of them need opioids for chronic pain aren't we overdoing it a little with the restriction on opioids? Why should good people suffer just because some addicts misbehave and die?
Some of these articles attempt a semblance of balance. They discuss the timeline of the opioid crisis based on policy changes and pharmaceutical marketing. They may get the opinion of some experts than generally falls along polarizing lines. In the end the reader is generally left with a definite viewpoint on what might be the right or wrong approach to chronic pain and the opioid crisis. There is never an explicit statement about right or wrong approaches being the way we got into the opioid crisis in the first place. Medicine is not a a field that you can generally approach with a pre-existing right or wrong bias - at least not for the majority of patients.
Most medical care is directed at a collection heterogeneous disorders spread across the entire population. Each of these conditions has numerous etiologies and no clear cure. That means from a medical standpoint it typically takes a number of trials to see if something works. Since only a fraction of the target population responds to the intervention and a significant fraction of the target population does not tolerate it - the interventions are generally seen as being weak across the entire population. That supports odd arguments like: "Antidepressants don't work" or "Beta blockers don't work for hypertension" or "Thiazide diuretics should always be the first line medications for hypertension".
It is also very tempting to look at the entire heterogeneous population and think: "Now we have a medication that can treat everybody. This is the magic bullet for this disorder". There are really very few medications that work that way. The reason for the less than robust response blockbuster drugs is quite simple - a significant number of people typically do not respond or get side effects to the point that they want to discontinue the medication. That negative response to medication is typically the main limitation when it comes to the overall effect of a medication on any population. In my experience about 1/7 people cannot tolerate an SSRI type antidepressant medication due to side effects. An addition 2/7 will not get an adequate therapeutic response. On the other hand the 4/7 of the people that respond may feel much better and notice a complete remission of depression or anxiety symptoms. Looking at the entire population the overall effect of the medication is not robust, but that does not mean that it might not be a life changing medication for some.
Opioids present a much different landscape because in many people they reinforce their own use irrespective of whether the medication works or gives that person significant side effects. You read that correctly. I have had people tell me directly that they got absolutely no pain relief from an opioid but they liked taking it so much they continued to get the prescription filled. I have had people tell me that they got significant side effects from opioid medication but they kept taking it because they liked how it made them feel. Keep in mind that there is always a range of these effects but I have never heard people describe these experiences with SSRI antidepressants. The mere taking of an SSRI antidepressant does not reinforce continued use.
This is the special dilemma with opioids and all medications that reinforce their own use (benzodiazepines, stimulants). When a person says that they need to keep taking that medication - what does it really mean? I will be the first to admit that they may need to take the medication and have treated chronic pain patients for years who were taking opioids. They were still in pain to some degree but they also believed the opioid was providing them with some degree of relief. The only visible sign that they could take opioids on a chronic basis was that they did not escalate the dose and did not get additional opioids or addictive drugs from other medical or non-medical sources. The obvious question in this case is "Why don't you just increase the dose of opioid to get rid of the pain?" The answer is that there is no medication - not even opioids that completely alleviate chronic pain. I have had many acute pain sufferers tell me that they did not get much relief from acute pain with opiates until the non-specific effects like sleep took over.
Another factor to consider is that most chronic pain patients who come to addiction treatment centers feel markedly better and in less pain when they are tapered off opioids and placed on non-opioid medication for pain. People are often surprised to hear that, but based on what I just said it should not be that surprising. If you are taking a medication that will not completely eliminate chronic pain, has a lot of side effects, and biases you into taking it and ignoring those side effects - how can you not feel better without it?
The final piece of the equation is addiction or severe opioid use disorder. At this stage - the problem is compounded by the fact that a person needs to take the medication in order to function on a day by day basis. If you happen to be a person with chronic pain - not being able to function in addition to the chronic pain puts you in an impossible situation. That is especially true if you are escalating the dose of medication in order to try to recapture the original high, cope with an emotional state, or get some sleep. In many of these situations the person will find themselves "cut off" from the clinic they attend because they have exceeded their prescribed amount of medications. Because that precipitates acute withdrawal they may seek prescription medications from a non-medical source or start using heroin.
I hope that I have been able to convey the complexity of the situation with opioids for a chronic wide scale problem as opposed to other medications for similar problems. The stimulus for this post is the usual swing in journalistic opinion with complex problems. I was going to title the post: "Why journalists and politicians can't practice medicine". Complex chronic problems in medicine cannot be oversimplified into binary solutions at this point in time. Researchers are currently developing the tools that will allow us to identify subgroups in these populations and subject people to less trial and error. At some time in the next 10 years, I expect that we will be able to rapidly identify who might be able to take opioids in a non-addictive manner and who will not be able to. We might even have better medications for chronic pain that are safe and non-addictive by then.
In the meantime, a rhetorical approach casting some people as victims and others as villains is unproductive and stigmatizing. As I tell my students it is the difference between drawing inferences about people in a large city based on the amount of addiction there. Twenty years ago in that large city children going to school would have to walk past three or four drug dealers. As a result urban addiction rates were much higher than rural addiction rates. Now that the rural kids have to walk past as many drug dealers, people in rural settings are addicted to heroin and dying of overdoses. Exposure to drugs rather then moral superiority is the limiting factor.
To do well in medicine a physician needs to have good probabilistic thinking. A lot of that process is acquired rather than learned on a rote basis. Errors in this decision making process are almost guaranteed, but the only real problem are the physicians who seem to error all of the time. That turns out to be a minority of physicians. I expect that this group has difficulty managing both the treatment probabilities and interpersonal dynamics required to treat chronic pain, recognize addiction and implement the appropriate interventions.
One thing is for sure journalists, politicians, law enforcement, and insurance companies do not do a better job than the majority of physicians. It is a major mistake to think otherwise.
George Dawson, MD, DFAPA
Graphic is supposed to indicate that only a physicians with direct responsibility to the patient can appreciate the complexity of the situation especially when it comes to the nuances of addiction and chronic pain treatment. It should be apparent that complexity can not be captured by rating scales.
Eyeball graphic is from Shutterstock "Untitled" per their standard agreement.