America Doesn’t Treat Pain Correctly
The American solution to most medical issues amounts to prescribing pills. This “solution” oversimplifies the problem and, more importantly, is profoundly shortsighted and wrong.
Consider how doctors treat chronic pain. Chronic pain, defined as pain lasting longer than three to six months, affects around 100 million Americans. In 2011, doctors wrote 219 million opioid painkiller prescriptions. That’s more than double the amount of chronic pain sufferers!
This astoundingly high number of prescriptions led approximately 17,000 people to die in 2011 from an opioid related overdose.
It’s clear how America treats chronic pain needs to change. Leading the charge to effect this change is the National Institute of Health.
The NIH studied past reports and studies in an attempt to learn how effective long-term opioid therapy is in treating chronic pain. They released their findings in early 2015 and the results, while not particularly surprising, are rather stark.
New Chronic Pain Facts & Statistics
First, it’s important to note some of the limitations the NIH faced when compiling their report. While they examined studies from many sources (including ClinicalTrivals.gov and MEDLINE), they didn’t find “reliable conclusions” about the effectiveness of opioid therapy.
The NIH didn’t examine non-English studies or reports. They were unable to perform meta-analysis on any studies. They also found no studies which gauged the long-term (over one year) effectiveness of opioid therapy on pain, quality of life, and addiction potential.
All that being said, here are the NIH’s new findings:
- Long-term opioid therapy is associated with an increased risk of overdose, opioid abuse and addiction, fractures, heart attack, and sexual dysfunction.
- The risk for bone fractures appears to be highest at the start of opioid therapy.
- There appears to be no difference in outcomes from steady-dose and escalating-dose opioid therapies.
- Methadone is very often involved in overdose deaths.
- However, according to various studies the NIH examined, methadone is actually associated with less deaths than a comparable therapeutic dose of sustained-release morphine.
- There’s not much information on how well “risk assessment instruments” help in predicting or deterring painkiller abuse before the start of opioid therapy.
- The NIH could find no studies which examined the effectiveness of drug tests, “abuse-proof” painkillers, or prescription monitoring programs in curbing opioid abuse for those on long-term opioid therapy.
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What’s the Solution?
After all was said and done, the National Institute of Health found insufficient evidence on the effectiveness of opioid therapy. They did, however, find evidence that supports the theory that higher doses expose patients to higher risks.
So, what can be done to help change the way America treats chronic pain? Well, the government is already taking some vital steps. In hopes of decreasing painkiller abuse, president Obama has rolled out an expanded 2016 drug policy budget.
His budget calls for, among other things, increased prescription monitoring programs and tighter restrictions on prescribing powerful opioids. While these tools are meant to curtail the illicit sale of painkillers, they’ll undoubtedly impact the legal prescription of them as well.
Next, an increasing focus on and exploration of alternative medicines will help change how doctors treat chronic pain. Doctors, scientists, researchers, and academics need to examine practices like physical therapy, acupuncture, yoga, and meditation for their pain blocking abilities. There’s tons of anecdotal evidence to support the idea that these are safer and at least as effective as traditional opioid pills.