Saturday's Medicine X session on the opioid crisis focused on how best to manage the chronic pain felt by millions of Americans every day. The session engaged panelists with different perspectives, including a patient in chronic pain and physicians struggling to decide when to prescribe opioids. All the panelists recognized that opioid addiction is a serious and pervasive problem, but they also warned that proper pain management is a complex issue.
Jeanmarie Perrone, MD, professor of emergency medicine at the Hospital of University of Pennsylvania, told the audience, "I need good pain management to work in the emergency room. We need these drugs, we just need to be conscientious about it."
ePatient Britt Johnson, a Medicine X board member and owner of the The Hurt Blogger, understands this all too well, and she shared her story of needing opioids to function due to severe pain from spondyloarthropathy and rheumatoid arthritis, which she's had for most of her life.
Johnson addressed the media's oversimplification of the issues. "Pain is not politically correct," she said. "The media tells me that all opioids are all bad. The media makes everyone believe that I, too, am struggling with addiction. And the media lumps me in with statistics on heroin usage and overdose deaths." She went on to say that she winds up "feeling guilt and shame for constantly experiencing pain. And I'm reminded constantly how heart breaking overdose stories are, which they are. But my story is not connected to those stories."
Pain expert Frank Lee, MD, agreed that "we're starting to stereotype chronic opioid patients as heroin addicts and physicians as pill pushers." Lee described the impact of this on his practice and how it increases his risk if he prescribes a large or moderate dose of opioids to a patient. "If I just follow the CDC guidelines and tell the patient that I can't prescribe this medication, it makes my life easier," he said.
Lee shared a story about one of his patients who recently died. In her 70s, Mary had severe rheumatoid arthritis and three back surgeries. When he "inherited" Mary from a different pain doctor, she was on massive doses of opioids -- close to 300 mg morphine daily equivalents, several times the recommended dose. "Maybe I was naïve, but I went through all the dangers of opioids. I told her, 'We need to come down on your dose.' She was hesitant, but she said 'If you really need to do this, okay.' During the next three months, we went down from almost 300 mg to about 70 mg. She ended up in the emergency room twice, because she just couldn't take it. It hurt too much," he said. "She cared enough to try what I recommended and I felt like I owed her the chance. We went back to the insane amount of her opioids and she did well." However, Lee expressed his concern over what the high opioid doses did to her body.
Lee and others discussed the need to distinguish between patients like Johnson and Mary from those who are prone to opioid addiction. Sean Mackey, MD, PhD, chief of the division of pain medicine at Stanford, declared the need for more quality data on pain -- through programs like the National Pain Strategy -- to help identify the risk factors of the people that are more vulnerable. Cynthia Reilly, director of the prescription drug abuse project at The Pew Charitable Trusts, professed that prescription drug monitoring programs are part of the solution.
The panel agreed that another solution is to make integrative medicine options more affordable. "At the pharmacy I get a bottle of 60 Percocet for ten dollars, yet I have to pay out of pocket for massage, acupuncture, heat therapy, ice packs, cognitive behavioral therapy, pain psychologists and anything else," said Johnson. "Opioids have the cheapest barrier to access, yet raising the price of opioids is not the answer; putting complementary pain therapies on an even playing field is."
Although mostly harmonious, the panel discussion became heated near the end when a member of the audience interrupted, asking to hear more from Johnson. Feeling that she was being left out of the conversation, Johnson said, "I'm sitting here and the discussion about the pain crisis is happening around me... and it could be happening with me. We could be having a real discussion here." The panel concluded that we need to do a better job bringing everyone together with different perspectives.
Previously: Medicine X, the academic conference where "everyone is included," returns, Federal government releases National Pain Strategy, The problem of prescription opioids: "An extraordinarily timely topic" and "People are looking for better answers": A conversation about chronic pain
Photo of Britt Johnson courtesy of Stanford Medicine X