As a chronic-pain patient myself, I proudly stood alongside other local chronic-pain patients last week at the Capitol in St. Paul for the Don’t Punish Pain rally. The Sept. 18 event was part of an international movement to draw attention to those suffering the unintended consequences of our country’s “opioid epidemic.”
In an effort to curb illicit-opioid overdoses, our government has made it so people who truly need prescription opioids to manage real, unbearable pain are struggling to get them. Doctors are afraid to not follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines because the Drug Enforcement Administration has been sending them threatening letters, shutting down pain clinics and trying to prosecute the doctors it feels aren’t prescribing pain medication properly. These guidelines don’t even apply to chronic-pain patients!
Dosages reduced or eliminated
Because of this, millions of chronic-pain patients have had their pain medications reduced or eliminated altogether. These are people who have been stable for years, even decades, and there is no medically sound reason to change their dosages. The result being that once-productive citizens are now unable to work, care for themselves and their families, or give back to their communities.
And it’s not just chronic-pain patients who are suffering. Patients who find themselves in the hospital for surgeries or treatments are finding there aren’t enough pain medications to treat all of the patients who need them. This is because fewer and fewer prescription opioids are being produced.
There is ample evidence that our country has an illicit-opioid problem, not a prescription-opioid problem. As fewer and fewer prescription opioids are produced and prescribed, overdose rates continue to rise. It’s frustrating that our leaders have stigmatized and punished legitimate and legal opioid use. It does nothing to decrease abuse or help street-drug users get the help they need.
I recognize the anguish that illicit opioid use has caused many in our communities. My heart breaks for the families who have had to bury their loved ones because they used illicit opioids or didn’t use their opioids properly. And I hope that we continue to find ways to help users of illicit opioids get the help they need to live productive lives.
Patients closely monitored
Did you know that patients who use prescription pain medications are closely monitored? They must submit to regular urine tests, sign pain contracts, always use the same pharmacy and agree to be tracked in a national database. And lately, many patients with legitimate opioid prescriptions are being turned away by pharmacists because they have their own biases against opioid use. If that pharmacist works at the pharmacy a pain patient has always used to fill their prescriptions, then the patient would be breaking their pain contract if they got the prescription filled at a different pharmacy. The consequence of breaking a pain contract is dismissal from a patient’s pain program, often without proper tapering, causing the patient to go into agonizing withdrawal.
Punishing proper and responsible pain management, such as the proposed opioid tax in Minnesota would have done, won’t end the opioid crisis. It could actually raise the cost of prescription opiates for legitimate patients and limit our access to life-saving care. It won’t address overprescribing or the number of dangerous and deadly illegal drugs flooding the black market. And as many states look at similar solutions, they’re not addressing the real problem: Our country has an illicit fentanyl and heroin problem.
People with cancer, arthritis, back problems and a host of other chronic-pain conditions are among the patients who rely on opioids most. For these patients, opioids are a last resort. I can guarantee you that the majority of prescription-opioid users have already tried every other conventional and nonconventional treatment available before they turned to pain medication. Patients who are dying are being denied proper pain control because, according to their doctors and our government, they may become addicted! Do you know how ridiculous that is? Elderly patients who have been taking a minimal amount of pain medication for decades to function are being forced to stop taking them.
Few chronic-pain patients become addicted
Statistics show that less than 5 percent of chronic-pain patients become addicted to prescription opioids [PDF]. Chronic-pain patients take opioids to live their lives, not to escape their lives, as addicts do. They don’t take opioids for pleasure; they take opioids to help reduce their pain and gain functionality. Chronic-pain patients are not the problem, so why are we treating them as such?
As lawmakers continue to seek solutions to the opioid epidemic, the needs of the chronic-pain community must be considered. The Don’t Punish Pain rally was a good start at getting the voices of chronic-pain patients heard. I hope legislators keep the needs of chronic-pain patients in mind as they return to St. Paul and look for solutions to the real problem facing communities across America.
Amber Bullington is a Minnetonka mother of two who has been a chronic-pain patient for 17 years due to fibromyalgia and early-onset osteoarthritis.
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