Last year, I served on a committee looking into reasons for resistance by the healthcare community to adopt opioid prescribing guidelines. At first blush, this reluctance was perplexing.
Every year, a “dead zone” appears in the Gulf of Mexico due to a gigantically large algae bloom. This summer, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted the dead zone to be the size of both Delaware and Connecticut combined.
The origins of the dead zone are traceable to over a thousand miles away from the farms of the upper Midwest, and all points further south. The origin, in other words, is farm run-off of nutrients from manure and chemical fertilizers.
Farmers in these states have animals that produce manure. They also use fertilizers on their fields. With time and rainfall, nutrients from these sources seep into the Mississippi and any of its countless tributaries. Making their way eventually to the Gulf of Mexico, these nutrients in the manure and fertilizers combine with the heat of the Gulf to spawn catastrophically large algal blooms that kill everything in its wake.
Well-meaning farmers of the Dakotas, say, or Minnesota, or Wisconsin, may never know of the distant consequences of their actions. As such, it’s nearly impossible, and perhaps even unfair, to hold any one person responsible. How would you ever know, for instance, that this farmer’s fertilizer applications, as opposed to that farmer’s application, led in part to the dead zone that occurs so far downstream in space and time? In general, we can rightly say that farm manure and the application of chemical fertilizer and its subsequent nutrient-rich run-off cause of the dead zone in the Gulf, but for any one particular farmer it is much harder to make a causal attribution.
The Gulf of Mexico dead zone, along with its distant causes, is a perfect analogy to the use of prescription opioids and the resultant opioid epidemic of addiction and overdose.
The single most important concern in public policy debates related to the use of opioids for persistent, or chronic, pain is what happens to people with persistent pain when they reduce or taper the use of opioids.
Just this morning, a primary care provider came to consult with me, looking for pain rehabilitation options for her patient with a complex set of needs. Emphasizing the legitimacy of the patient’s pain complaints, the provider detailed a long history of an active substance use disorder. The patient has had multiple urine drug screens positive for both opioids, which weren’t prescribed to the patient, and illegal substances. The provider recounts that the patient has been asked to leave multiple pain clinics for similar aberrant prescription drug use behaviors, all of which are indicative of an inability to control the use of opioids. Given the patient's history, she is at high risk of further exacerbating her addiction and/or death, if opioids continue to be prescribed. Nevertheless, the provider feels as if she has to prescribe opioids to the patient because, "she has legitimate medical conditions with real pain."
Opioids, or narcotic pain medications, are commonly thought of as powerful pain relievers. Patients frequently request them and healthcare providers often prescribe them for back pain because they think that opioids are the most effective pain reliving treatment. Popular media and others in society also commonly think that without opioids patients will suffer intolerable or “intractable” back pain. The implication is that, again, opioids are the most powerful and effective pain reliever.
But are they the most effective pain relieving treatment for back pain?
When engaging in long-term opioid management for chronic pain, should healthcare providers discuss with their patients the fact that the medications won’t typically remain effective for the rest of their life? That is to say, should healthcare providers fully review the implications of opioid tolerance prior to beginning long-term opioid management for patients who have chronic pain, but who are neither elderly nor sick with a terminal illness?