Prescription drug abuse is one of the leading causes of death in the United States—even surpassing fatalities caused by guns or car accidents. Americans are in pain, and the number of opioids used for pain is four times higher than it was in 1999, according to the CDC; and yet the pain hasn’t abated. It’s not difficult to understand why so many Americans become dependent on opioids to cope with their pain, but the lack of accepted alternative treatments is killing them. Opioids are one spot on a vast continuum of pain management methods, and while they can be effective, using them as the sole means of relief is creating a society of addicted people who see no feasible end to their suffering.

Information from the CDC states that more than 40 people die from prescription opioid overdoses every day, amounting to more than 165,000 deaths since 1999. The fact that such a common form of pain management has led to so many preventable deaths is unacceptable. Patients deserve care that won’t lead them to additional physical and mental distress. Something must change.

How Opioids Influence Pain Management

Aside from the risk of addiction, opioids can cause a host of adverse side effects, such as constipation, nausea, respiratory problems, fatigue, depression, and more. The risk of sleep problems is especially significant, since many patients already suffer from sleep issues due to their pain. Lost or disordered sleep can then have repercussions on patients’ mental health, which makes it even harder to cope daily.

While taking prescription opioids is not inherently harmful or irresponsible, there is clearly something wrong with the role they currently play in the management of chronic pain. Due to the nature of chronic pain, it is no surprise that patients become dependent easily. When one’s life is characterized by debilitating, incurable pain, relying heavily on the only means of relief becomes an obvious solution, no matter the danger associated with it. To understand opioid addiction, one must first investigate the intricacies of pain itself.

What Needs to Change

An essay written by Howard L. Fields, MD, PhD, and published in the National Center for Biotechnology Information, described that:

While there is no debate over the short term use of opiates, their use for chronic non-malignant pain is controversial and there is growing reluctance among some physicians to prescribe them. The problem is that the most powerful opiate analgesics are also the most liable to cause abuse and addiction.

To address the epidemic of opioid addiction, physicians first need to focus on the epidemic of chronic pain that created it. They must also analyze the shortcomings in current treatment options. These shortcomings are the reason people suffering from chronic pain can’t attain consistent relief and find it close to impossible to live a normal life. Addicted people rarely want to be addicted; they just want to be pain-free.

Successful functional restoration in cases of chronic pain requires an understanding of the dynamics contributing to both pain and opioid dependence. The first step is acknowledging that pharmaceuticals are not the only option for treating chronic pain. The current model for chronic pain treatment is incredibly limited, involving only biomedical approaches like surgery, pharmaceuticals, and physical therapy. A biopsychosocial approach is one that tries to understand pain on many levels and considers all the variables that contribute to how a person experiences pain.

In the same way that a complex approach needs to be taken to address chronic pain, a complex approach that considers multiple variables should be applied to prescription opioid addiction. The most effective way to address chronic pain and abuse of chronic pain medication is a multidisciplinary, biopsychosocial program with a focus on the intricacies of patients’ lives.

For more information on the resources available to those suffering from chronic pain and addiction, call (800) 270-5016 or email info@institutesofhealth.org.