Chronic Pain and Opioid Use in America

Mortality resulting from opioid use (over 33,000 in 2015) is now epidemic in the U.S., exceeding drug-related deaths from all other intoxicants. Dr. Ted Cicero of Washington University, Dr. William Jacobs, Medical Director of Bluff Plantation, and I discussed the opioid over-prescribing and switch to heroin at DEA Headquarters on November 17, 2015. Things have gone from bad to worse. In a recent JAMA article (March 2017), Dr. Bertha Madras, Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, offers compelling analysis and recommendations to rein in this crisis.

Physicians have increasingly prescribed opioids for pain since the AMA added pain as the “fifth vital sign,” which, like blood pressure, mandated assessment during each patient encounter. As a result of this and acceptance of low-quality evidence touting opioids as a relatively benign remedy for managing both acute and chronic pain, prescriptions for opioids have risen threefold over the past two decades.

Addiction, overdose and mortality resulting directly from opioid misuse increased rapidly. In addition, the influx of cheap heroin, often combined with homemade fentanyl analogues, became increasingly popular as prescription opioids became harder to attain and cost prohibitive on the streets. Consequently, a proportion of prescription opioid misusers transitioned to cheaper, stronger and more dangerous illicit opioids.

Opioid Mortality

The breakdown in mortality was confirmed by surveys (2015) revealing a disproportionate rise in deaths specifically attributable to: fentanyl/analogs (72.2%) and heroin (20.6%) compared with only prescription opioids, at less than eight percent. The unprecedented rise in overdose deaths and association with the heroin trade catalyzed the formation of federal and state policies to reduce supply and increase the availability of treatment and of a life saving opioid antagonist overdose medication Naloxone, a short-acting, mu 1, opioid receptor antagonist. Naloxone quickly reverses the effect of opioids and acute respiratory failure provoked by overdose.

Yet, according to Dr. Madras, the current federal and state response is woefully inadequate. She writes: “Of more than 14,000 drug treatment programs in the United States, some funded by federal block grants to states, many are not staffed with licensed medical practitioners. An integrated medical and behavioral treatment system, under the supervision of a physician and substance abuse specialist, would foster comprehensive services, provide expedient access to prescription medicines, and bring care into alignment with current medical standards of care.”

Why Does This Matter?

As baby boomers age and live longer, chronic non-cancer pain is highly prevalent. Opioids for legitimate non-cancer pain are not misused or abused by most patients under proper medical supervision. Yet there is no effective, practical means in this managed care climate whereby Primary Care Physicians (PCPs) can determine who is at risk for abuse and addiction and who is not. And frankly, addicts lie to their doctors to get opioids. Without proper training, physicians, who genuinely want to help their patients, get in over their heads and don’t know how to respond.

Further complicating the issue is that many of the affordable treatment programs do not employ medical providers who are trained and Board Certified in Addiction and Pain Medicine, not to mention addiction psychiatry, or addiction medicine physicians. Thus the outcomes are dismal, which fosters doubt and mistrust of treatment.

Lastly, the lack of well-trained providers is due, in part, to the lack of training for medical doctors in addiction and behavioral medicine. At the University of Florida, we developed a mandatory rotation for all medical students in “the Division of Addiction Medicine.” We also started Addiction as a sub-specialty within psychiatry, where residents and post-doctoral fellows were immersed in both classroom and clinical training.

Since 1990, many other similar fellowship programs have started, yet few are training all medical students in the hands-on, two-week clerkship experience in Addiction Medicine like they have in obstetrics. We took this a step further when we developed a jointly run Pain and Addiction Medicine evaluation and treatment program which focused on prevention and non-opioid treatments. Many more are needed, as well as increased CME in addictive disease for physicians in any specialty.