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The problem of prescription opioids: “An extraordinarily timely topic”

Suffer from pain? Or become an addict? Bemoan the epidemic of pain? Or decry the epidemic of opioid addiction?

At first glance, pain and addiction appear to conflict, to occupy distinct never-overlapping planes. But in reality, pain and addiction anchor two ends of a spectrum, with a lot of gray area in between, said Anna Lembke, MD, director of the Stanford Addiction Medicine Program.

Lembke and Sean Mackey, MD, PhD, chief of pain medicine, squared off in a good-natured debate of sorts moderated by chief communications officer Paul Costello last week at a Stanford Health Policy Forum on "The Problem of Prescription Opioids."

"This is an extraordinarily timely topic," Dean Lloyd Minor, MD, said in his introduction. "These issues really reflect a dilemma of wanting to bring the best compassionate care and science to our patients, yet also needing to respect the adverse effects that can occur."

The statistics on both sides are sobering. The two experts told the audience that in the U.S., more than 16,000 people per year die of opioid overdose and 100 million people live in pain.

And both Lembke and Mackey shared harrowing tales of the suffering of their patients. Lembke once was called to consult on a women suffering from low back pain who had a opioid addiction identified by two previous psychiatrists. Yet in the exam room, the patient threatened to sue if she didn't receive an opioid prescription, Lembke said. Cases like that prompted her to pen a provocative 2012 essay titled "Why doctors prescribe opioids to known opioid abusers."

But Mackey treats patients who are suffering deeply, including a woman whose foot injury from a vehicle accident morphed into a pain syndrome affecting her upper extremities.

The current opioid addiction problem stems from a historical pattern of failing to treat pain, even in dying patients, Lembke said. Yet the pendulum swung too far and now doctors feel obligated to prescribe drugs such as opioids, she said.

At the Stanford Pain Management Center, teams of specialists work together to treat pain as a complex condition that affects many parts of the body and mind, Mackey said. Patients are treated with physical therapy, psychiatry and a variety of other specialties to try to allow them to participate in meaningful life activities, he said.

Although care at Stanford is top notch, it is an outlier and thousands of other patients are exposed to poor pain management practices. In addition, pain is now widely recognized as a disease, but addiction remains stigmatized, Lembke said.

When doctors recognize a opioid-seeking patient, they should treat the addiction, not boot the patient out of their practice.

Lembke and Mackey stressed that education about both pain and addiction ought to receive increased attention in medical schools. And patients need to take a role in treating both their own pain, and their addictions, they said. They do share common ground, Lembke said.

"All we think about every day is how we're going to do it better," Mackey said.

Previously: Assessing the opioid overdose epidemic, Stanford addiction expert: It’s often a "subtle journey" from prescription-drug use to abuse, Is a push to treat chronic pain pressuring doctors to prescribe opioids to addicts?, Why doctors prescribe opioids to patients they know are abusing them and Study shows prescribing higher doses of pain meds may increase risk of overdose

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