Overprescribing Opioids Is A Problem In Our Own Backyard

opioid problems mnNew findings published in the Annals of Surgery suggests that clinicians at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester were routinely writing opioid prescriptions for surgical patients that exceeded regulatory guidelines currently being drafted by the state of Minnesota. The findings also uncovered significant differences in opioid prescribing among the Mayo clinics in Rochester, Arizona and Florida, as well as within surgical procedures.

Study senior author Elizabeth Habermann, who also serves as the scientific director of surgical outcomes research at Mayo, said the findings help highlight where improvements can be made.

“In light of the opioid epidemic, physicians across the country know overprescribing is a problem, and they know there is an opportunity to improve,” said senior author Elizabeth Habermann, scientific director of surgical outcomes research at Mayo. “This is the first step in determining what is optimal for certain surgeries and, eventually, the individual patient.”

Opioid Overdoses In America

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of deaths involving prescription opioid overdoses have nearly quadrupled since 2000. In fact, more than 90 people died each day from either a prescription opioid or heroin overdose in 2015 alone.

Study co-author Dr. Robert Cima said doctors have been so focused on ensuring patients have their pain minimized as much as possible after surgery that they often don’t consider the possible long-term side effects of the prescriptions they’re filling.

“For the last two decades, there had been such a focus at the national level on ensuring patients have no pain,” said Dr. Cima, a colorectal surgeon and chair of surgical quality at Mayo Clinic’s Rochester campus. “That causes overprescribing, and, now, we’re seeing the negative effects of that.”

I have no doubt that the Mayo Clinic will adhere to the new guidelines being drafted at the state level in short order, but this story speaks to the larger issue of just how unregulated opioids are at some of the nation’s best hospitals. And if it’s happening there, you can bet it’s happening to a larger degree at lesser care centers.

However, these findings do cast light on the problem and should help push us towards a solution, but it’s not necessarily going to come from the top down. It needs to start with doctors. We need take time with each patient and push them towards active treatment techniques instead of passive treatments like opioids. Opioids certainly have their role in pain management, but they shouldn’t be over-relied on, as it appears they are.

Understanding Opioids, Addiction and Naloxone

opioids safety drugsChronic pain patients have a multitude of possible treatments available for the management of symptoms. Strategies often include exercise, physical therapy, chiropractic care, massage, injections and medications. One of the more frowned upon treatments is opioids, but sometimes they are used successfully. With the current opioid crisis, many pain patients fear using them and want to be safe if they have them in their possession.

Opioid Safety

The most important rule with regards to use of any medication, especially opioids, is to never take more than what has been prescribed. Opioids can build up in the body and suddenly become deadly if too much is taken. Running out early can cause opioid withdrawal syndrome and while it is uncomfortable, it is not dangerous to your health. If you are taking opioids, expect your doctor to closely monitor your medication and behavior while taking these drugs. Since they are highly addictive and abused, most doctors will tightly control prescriptions and refills. Drug testing, opioid contracts, behavior screenings, depression screenings and monitoring of other medications are standard. Mixing of medications like sedatives, anti-anxiety treatments like benzodiazepines, and using any street drugs often will lead to ending a prescriptions for opioids, and often there is zero tolerance of any safety rules due to the extreme danger inherent with opioid misuse.

Mixing Street Drugs and Opioids

The latest step in opioid safety is the prescribing of naloxone in addition to the opioid. Naloxone is a drug that can block the opioid receptors for most opioid-type drugs, and it can prevent an accidental or purposeful overdose. In Minnesota it can be obtained at most pharmacies even without a prescription, and can be given effectively as either an injection or as an intranasal spray. Anyone who is routinely taking an opioid or has opioid medications in the home should likely have naloxone too, in case they accidentally or purposefully take too much, or someone else takes their medications. If you are on these medications, ask your doctor about having a safety prescription for naloxone.

Using street drugs for an addiction to opioids or for pain is high-risk behavior. The singer Prince was using Percocet obtained from street sources to control his hip joint pain. The Percocet he obtained had allegedly been mixed with fentanyl, which is an extremely potent opioid and caused his overdose death. If you are addicted to opioids, are using them to get high, use heroin, or have family or friends that is misusing opioids, you can obtain naloxone and this may save someone from an overdose death.

Successful Opioid Treatment

Opioids can be helpful in treating pain, but they are extremely difficult to use due their limited safety. More physicians are very reluctant to prescribe these medications and their long-term efficacy and safety is limited. More information has become available on how opioids actually tend to increase pain over time versus being helpful. Pain management specialists will work with patients to find alternative strategies to these dangerous medications.  

One last issue with regards to all medications, especially opioids, is how to dispose of unused or outdated prescriptions. In the past, medications were often flushed down the toilet or thrown out in the trash. The environment does not do well with those methods, and it tends to lead to contamination of our waterways and ground water. Freshwater fish are starting to show significant levels of some commonly disposed medications. The best way to get rid of unwanted medications is to bring them to your local police or sheriff’s department where they have disposal lock boxes. These medications then are handled as hazardous waste and usually incinerated at high temperatures to completely destroy them and turn it to relatively safe ash.

If you’re struggling with an opioid addiction or want a doctor to help get to the bottom of your pain, contact Dr. Cohn today.

How Unregulated Opioid Use Can Lead To Heroin Addiction

Opioids pills heroinIn the 1960s, the drug culture was known for psychedelics, LSD and marijuana. Eventually, some of those users sought a stronger high, and that led them down the path to heroin. At least that was the message pushed by the government in its fight against drugs.

Heroin was actually not that common and it was often a drug of addiction found in Vietnam veterans due to its availability in that region. Intense drug programs and interventions to rid production significantly reduced heroin use in the U.S. from the 1970’s through about 2000. In the 1990’s, the era of everyone needing opioid pain management began and along came Oxycontin. The quick and easy option for most doctors to treat pain was to write a prescription for the magical opioid pill. For the last ten years, we now have discovered the rising tide of opioid addiction and now deaths from overdoses is catching up to the number from auto accidents.

Link Between Pills and Heroin

Oxycontin first came on the market in the 1990’s and was extensively marketed as a safe drug for management of pain. The manufacturer would fly physicians to resorts, wine and dine them, and then try to hire them to lecture other doctors on the wonder of their drug. By about 2005, some of the problems with addiction were becoming evident. The government convinced the manufacturer to develop a formulation that would deter abuse by making anti-crush pills, and these came on the market around 2010. It was still a potent drug, but it was not as fun to take and the pills became expensive on the black market. However, the damage had been done and now the main way to treat pain was with opioids, any many people had become addicted to the powerful medication.

A study recently done by the University of Pennsylvania and the Rand Corporation explains why heroin has now become a problem. The development of the new formulation of Oxycontin made this drug more expensive and harder to abuse. Heroin has become cheap, more pure, and once you’re hooked on opioids, it is now easier and less expensive to obtain. So once a person is addicted to pain pills, the cheaper route to get high and prevent drug withdrawal is to use heroin.

Now the latest trick for those with an opioid addiction to get high is to use heroin or oxycodone that is mixed with another synthetic opioid like fentanyl or cor-fentanyl which are a hundred to over a thousand times stronger. These drugs are often been manufactured in China or India, and they can be easily mailed anonymously without much suspicion into the U.S. If mixed wrong, these newer synthetic opioids are often deadly.

Takeaway Points

The message from the opioid crisis is that pain has many ways to be treated, and left unregulated the use of opioids is often more dangerous then helpful. Addiction is a disease; without treatment, some resort to the use of heroin since it is cheap, and many cut that drug with other potent drugs that are deadly.

Stopping the opioid crisis will take time and effort. Treating pain is not just about taking opioids – that has led to the addiction crisis. Money needs to be spent on pain research and the development of better pain management strategies. A third of the population has issues with pain, making it more prevalent than heart disease, cancer and diabetes combined. To solve the problem of pain and drug abuse, a concerted government investment into pain research and better medical management is needed.

Why Chronic Pain Patients Feel Targeted By Opioid Crackdowns

pain pill overdoseAs opioid overdoses continue to rise in the US, the government, lawmakers and medical personnel are all trying to figure out the best way to reduce these unnecessary deaths. Obviously restricting access to opioids would reduce the number of people who can get their hands on them, and in turn reduce overdose deaths, but it would also unfairly target people who need the pills. People like those suffering from chronic pain. So it’s understandable to see why when lawmakers propose strict rules for who can access these medications that chronic pain sufferers feel like they are being targeted and singled out.

It’s a tough balance to strike, and unfortunately it seems that as a nation we are more focused on what is easy and cheap instead of what will really address the root problem. Putting a band-aid over a large gash might stop some bleeding, but the wound won’t close correctly without stitches. Simply restricting access opioids and painkillers might stop some abusers from getting the pills, but it won’t solve the whole problem. We need to put some stitches in place.

Solving The Opioid Crisis

We’re not going to sit here and pretend we have all the answers for solving the problem of opioid addiction and overdose, but like we said above, simply restricting access is not going to solve the problem, and many innocent people who rely on those medications may no longer be able to access them. Instead, here are some steps that will help address the root problem.

1. Doctor Education – The vast majority of doctors understand that opioids do not address the root problem, but sometimes they are confused by a diagnosis or have seen other treatments fail and they fall back on them. Other doctors cut corners and prescribe pills freely and dangerously. We need to provide better understanding at the top level of how these drugs should be used, how to spot signs of abuse and how to ensure patients are safely taking their medications so that overdoses don’t occur.

2. Systemic Pressure – This problem will be harder to solve, but in many cases doctors are told to see as many patients as possible. If a doctor is feeling overwhelmed or rushed to see a number of patients, they can sometimes fall back on easy solutions like opioids. Doctors need to take their time with each and every patient and ensure they are giving them the best care possible. It’s possible the best care will involve opioids, but it should also involve therapy, exercise and regular abuse checks.

3. Patient Education – Patients also lack understanding of opioids and their abuse potential. Opioids are not a magic pill that will cure your pain, but they can provide temporary relief so other rehab techniques like exercise, swimming or physical therapy are more bearable. Opioids are a passive treatment, and they need to be paired with an active treatment option for best results. Patients also need to learn the warning signs of abuse for themselves and for loved ones who may have access to their pills.

4. Pill Technology – Medical researchers are looking into new abuse-deterrent opioids. They are creating pills that can’t be crushed or that become gooey if a user tries to extract the solution for injection. Other pills come in an extended release form and can’t be manipulated to give an elevated or intense high. More research into abuse deterrent options could prove useful.

Simply saying we need to restrict access to opioids will not solve the problem, and many chronic pain sufferers will be affected instead of those who are actually abusing the pills. That’s why so many patients feel targeted by these proposals. It won’t be easy to reverse this trend, but if we put in the time and money, it can be done.

Opioids – Understanding Dependence Vs. Addiction

addiction dependenceAnother misleading article appeared in the paper again last week, this time it is again about the opioid crisis. The headline gets the story wrong, and is truly misleading. It says in the headline “Third of long-term opioid users addicted”. The story is from the Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation survey of 622 users of opioids for over two months. In the article it states one third of users are either addicted or dependent on these powerful painkillers. The critical information is in one word that was left out headline and it was the word “or”. Addiction and dependence are two very different things, and two-thirds of the people had neither of the problems. Deaths from opioids are indeed a crisis, as the yearly total of opioid deaths are in the region of 30,000 in the United States – about the same as the number killed by either auto accidents or gun violence.

Chronic Pain

Chronic pain is an extremely difficult medical problem. Pain is caused by hundreds of issues and there is no simple solution to many of the problems related to pain. It is not a glamorous condition, and despite the deaths related to opioids, not much is being done to find better treatments for pain. There has been little government support for finding treatments to pain while billions are being spent to treat addicts. There are no moonshots or big government programs to fund research into better treatments for pain. With a third of the population in the world dealing with pain, it is a wonder why so little is spent on finding solutions.

Addiction Vs. Dependence

To understand the article noted above, knowing addiction and dependence are two different things is incredibly important. Dependence is a condition where the body becomes adapted to a chemical, and if the compound is stopped, then the body goes through withdrawals from that compound. There are a number of compounds like this that are medicines including anxiety drugs and many others. Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. In addiction there is an inability to abstain from behaviors that are detrimental to one’s physical and emotional health.

People who have chronic pain may use opioids to control symptoms and allow for increased daily functions. If they have been on the medications for a long time, then they may or may not be dependent on them physically. If they are suddenly stopped, and you are dependent, the body would go through withdrawals. Understanding pain and dependence is a medical problem and treated best by experts in Physiatry and Pain Medicine.

Addicts use a medicine like opioids for pain relief, but mostly they are used for the pleasure it creates in the brain. They crave the reward it gives and will do whatever it takes to obtain pleasure even if it is causing physical, legal, behavioral, or emotional destruction. Addicts are unable to control their cravings and will continue the activity despite the harm it is causing. The number of pain patients that are truly addicts alone range from estimates at about 5-7% to about 17%. The addicts are usually those who are using pain medicines illegally and are dying. Understanding addicts and treatment is a Psychiatry and Addiction Medicine problem.

Finding a Solution to the Pain

Chronic pain affects a third of the world population. There are not enough good treatments available and the research in this field is poorly funded. Opioids can be a very effective treatment for some people, but they have many drawbacks. Most people can use these medications safely if needed. Addiction is a separate disease, and opioids have now become a tempting drug for many to satisfy their needs. Possibly the best solution to the opioid crisis is finding a solution to pain versus treating another cause of addiction.