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Cirque du Soleil Star Treads Opioid Tightrope

By McCarton Ackerman 03/06/13

Joe Putignano explains the balancing act of pain management while in recovery from heroin.

Putignano in action. Photo via

For recovering addicts, being prescribed pain medication for legitimate pain can feel like an exercise in acrobatics. This is the case for Cirque du Soleil star Joe Putignano, who describes getting shoulder surgery after five years in recovery from a heroin addiction. The acrobat, who has performed in nearly 1,000 shows for the company, says he fears that taking opioid painkillers after surgery could lead him back to heroin. "Opiates made me feel like I was the greatest human being possible. Protected, cared for, loved—all internally," he explains, "So I started my path on opiates and abused them, which ultimately lead me to heroin...I'm terrified that if I have an opiate, will it trigger this kind of sleeping demon inside of me?" The National Institute on Drug Abuse reported in 2009 that 605,000 people over the age of 13 had abused heroin the previous year, while 16 million Americans abused or misused prescription pain relievers, tranquilizers, stimulants or sedatives for non-medical purposes. Putignano's pain specialist, Dr. Boris Spektor, assistant professor of anesthesiology and pain management at Emory University, says former addicts going back for surgery is becoming a growing problem in America, "as more and more people are using opioid substances for nonmedical reasons, and using them for medical reasons out of proportion for the dosages that they should be prescribed." He has created a comprehensive treatment plan for Putignano that includes non-abusive medications, regular NA and AA meetings, and meetings with a psychologist. "I think Joe has an incredibly good psychological framework going on," says Spektor. "With that combination, I think the likelihood of success is pretty good, but none of us know for sure."

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.

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