RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Virginia has declared the opioid crisis here a public health emergency, but some fear the government’s focus on opioid abuse comes at the expense of patients who use opioids responsibly.
“Your bones and your skin and nerves get sensitive,” one Central Virginia woman said, describing what it is like to have Chronic Regional Pain Syndrome.
8News chose to keep the identity of the woman anonymous, considering that she has previously had people attempt to steal her medication.
“It’s like a fiery ice, like a hot ice that is burning all the time. It’s very, very painful,” she said.
Opioids are the only thing she has found to ease the pain, either Oxycontin or Hydrocodone.
But recently her doctor refused to give her more.
“20 years I never did illegal drugs, I never did heroin, never abused opioids. It was a life-saver for me,” the chronic pain sufferer said.
Without the pain pills, she said she must keep her walker and wheelchair close by.
“Some days I can’t even leave my house and I stay in my bed,” she told 8News.
She’s one of thousands suffering from Fibromyalgia, Lupus or Lyme disease who have launched a social media movement using the hashtag “patients not addicts.”
A facebook page has more that 11 thousand followers.
They argue that as the nation rushes to stop the overdoses and lives lost to abuse, chronic pain sufferers have become the unintentional victims of the opioid crisis.
“It scares me any time the government gets into regulating medical professionals,” another chronic pain patient who has also asked not to be identified said. She fears new regulations have doctors afraid to prescribe opioids anymore. New CDC guidelines now strongly encourage doctors to consider alternatives,
Medical boards are getting tougher on doctors who over-prescribe and Virginia has a prescription drug monitoring program. It’s a database keeping tabs on opioid prescriptions.
“These regulations, I believe, will turn very many good citizens to illegal drugs,” the second patient said.
8News spoke with Dr. Hughes Melton, the Chief Deputy Commissioner for the Virginia Department of Health about the issue.
“Science changes overtime,” Melton said. According to him, the science around treating chronic pain has changed.
“While their experience has been that the opiate medications have worked for their pain, new evidence suggested that maybe there are some unintended consequences with the medications,” Melton said.
Still, there are some in the medical community who say there are so-called “outlier” patients for whom opioids are necessary to maintain their quality of life.
Dr. Melton encourages chronic pain patients to research non-opioid alternatives. He also recommended patients have an open conversation with their doctor.
“You know, I understand there is new information about opioids: What other medication can help my condition?” Melton said. “Is there something that can be added to what I am taking so I can take less of the opioid medication?”
8News contacted the Center for Disease Control for comment about this matter. In a statement, representatives from the CDC described the challenge of balancing the benefits and risks of opioids:
Managing chronic pain is important to the health and well-being of all Americans, and preventing, assessing, and treating chronic pain is a challenge for health care providers. Patient safety is our top concern, and CDC encourages providers and patients to carefully consider both the benefits and serious risks of these medications in making decisions about chronic pain management. The Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain provides recommendations to help assess when it is appropriate to initiate and continue opioid prescribing for pain outside of active cancer treatment, palliative care, and end-of-life care to ensure patients have access to safe and effective chronic pain treatment.
When patients are already taking opioids long term and providers and patients decide the benefits no longer outweigh the risks, the Guideline provides recommendations on how to safely taper opioids, maximize treatment with non-opioid medications or nonpharmacologic therapies (for example, exercise), and consult with pain specialists. The Guideline urges both the providers and patients to discuss any concerns, and if there is any increased risk of overdose or opioid use disorder, the provider can offer potentially lifesaving information and interventions.
Change is needed regarding how pain is treated in the United States. We must balance the need to treat pain effectively with the need to do so safely. Patients with chronic pain deserve safe and effective pain management. CDC has been developing resources to help providers learn and apply the Guideline appropriately in clinical settings. Many of them are located here: http://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/prescribing/resources.html.
In the meantime, that first chronic pain sufferer we spoke to is now rationing her medication, saving them for important days with the family.
“It’s not a life to be like this,” she said with tears in her eyes.
For health care providers, Dr.Melton encourages them to use tools like drug tests and the state prescription drug monitoring program to better determine who may or may not be addicted.