Pain Patients Express Hope Amid Revised Opioid Policies

By Kelly Burch 06/13/19

Some medical professionals are finally starting to understand that cutting pain patients off opioids abruptly causes more harm than good. 

pain patient discussing revised opioid policies with doctor

After years of having their access to opioids restricted, some chronic pain patients feel that they are finally being heard, as the medical community becomes more open to the idea that tapering opioids, especially after long-term use, needs to be done slowly and carefully. 

In April, the FDA warned that cutting off patients’ opioids too quickly could be detrimental to their health. The organization went so far as to recognize that not being able to control pain could lead to suicide in chronic pain patients. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) made a similar change in policy. 

Andrew Kolodny, who co-directs Brandeis University’s Opioid Policy Research Collaborative at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management, recently told OZY that it is “exceptionally cruel to abruptly withdraw a patient from opioids.”

Many pain patients feel that the medical community and regulatory commissions are just now beginning to talk about that openly.

Lelena, a woman who was given opioids to deal with pain from fibromyalgia, was dismissed from her pain clinic after testing positive for heroin, a result that was later proved to be a false positive. Despite that, she was not able to access pain medications and had to go through opioid withdrawal, in addition to coping with her pain. 

Laura Mills, who works with Human Rights Watch, said that experiences like Lelena’s are unnecessary and discriminatory. 

“We always emphasize that the risk for harm [from suddenly stopping opioid medication] is huge, given that an approximate 13 million Americans are still on opioids long-term,” she said. 

That’s why people like Kate Nicholson, a civil rights attorney who previously worked at the U.S. Department of Justice, turned their attention to helping people with legitimate medical needs access opioid medications. Although Nicholson said that the government’s new, more nuanced approach is needed, she also feels that there is a lot of work still to be done. 

“It was hard in some ways to get the CDC to change,” she said. “And in some ways, it was the easiest first step.”

Still, many people who have seen the negative impacts of opioids feel that it is only natural for prescribers to be extra cautious. Kolodny pointed out that Lelena, like many people on opioids, should never have been given the pills in the first place. 

“There’s no debate,” he said. “You don’t give opioids for fibromyalgia. It’s the fault of this campaign that encourages people to prescribe opioids, a highly addictive drug you become easily dependent on.”

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.