Let’s Focus On The Pain Epidemic, Not The Opioid Epidemic

pain opioid epidemicA recent article in the Star-Tribune noted that every three weeks, the death toll from opioid overdoses matches the death toll from the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Not only is this a concerning number, but trends show that the death toll from opioid overdoses is continuing to skyrocket. The government and even President Trump have stated that the opioid epidemic is a problem that needs to be solved, but are they looking at the problem in the right way?

The opioid crisis is a huge issue, but it’s only a symptom of a larger problem, which is the pain epidemic in America. More people are turning to opioids in the United States because more of them are fighting a losing battle against pain. We need to be finding solutions to the pain problem, because the opioid crisis is a symptom of the problem of pain.

Stopping Pain

Think of it this way. Let’s say you’re in your house and you see smoke. You run to the kitchen and notice a fire behind the stove. You quickly fill up some water from the sink and douse the flames with water, stopping the fire in its tracks. It’s great that you stopped the fire, but you wouldn’t just go back into your living room without investigating what caused the fire to start in the first place. If you don’t fix the faulty wiring that caused the fire, you’re prone to another fire in the future.

In the above instance, throwing water on the fire is like trying to treat the opioid epidemic. It is a problem that needs to be addressed, but unless we also focus on the root problem, which is pain (or faulty wiring in this case), then the problem is only going to continue to be cyclical. Eliminating opioids may reduce the number of overdose deaths, but it will also hurt patients who use them responsibly to manage their pain, and severely cutting back on opioids will do NOTHING to solve the pain problem.

What We Need To Do

Enough about what’s wrong with the current system – here’s a definitive list of what we as a nation need to do in order to fix the opioid crisis and the pain problem in America.

  • We need to educate both patients and doctors about how opioids work in conjunction with a multi-faceted approach to pain management.
  • Opioids can play a role in pain care, but they can’t be the only treatment option. They can help manage pain, but they are not a long term solution to treat pain. Anybody who is only taking pain medications for their condition is at a high risk for dependency and has a low chance of ever recovering from their pain.
  • We need to open up insurance coverage to other non-traditional methods of pain management. Let’s get creative with pain management, because what works for some will not work for others.
  • We have to pound home the message that there is no magic pill for pain, but tangible solutions are within your reach.
  • Doctors need to do a better job of pushing people towards tangible solutions instead of quick fixes. Things like physical therapy, aqua therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, yoga, etc. over writing a quick prescription.
  • We need to invest research funding into pain treatments, whether it’s medical marijuana or new diagnostic tools, we need to spend money on solving the problem of pain. Invest in pain solutions like we’re investing in treating cancer or diabetes.

If we can check off all the items on this list, I’m confident we can find new ways to treat pain, and in turn combat the opioid crisis in America.

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Thomas Cohn, MD

Interventional pain doctor helping Minnesotans manage back, neck, foot, and other pain. Board-certified in physical medicine and rehabilitation with additional board-certification in pain management from the American Board of Anesthesiology (ABA), the American Board of Interventional Pain Physicians (ABIPP) and the American Board of Pain Medicine (ABPM).

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