The War Over Prescription Painkillers

Posted on January 30th, 2012 in News and Commentary

The War Over Prescription Painkillers

From the HUFF POST:

…There’s no question that prescriptions for opioid painkillers like Oxycontin and Percocet have soared in recent years. It’s also clear that there are some rogue doctors and “pill mills” who unscrupulously hand out prescriptions, sometimes to patients who shouldn’t get them, sometimes to drug addicts and drug dealers pretending to be pain patients. But it’s also far from certain that the painkiller abuse and overdoses are as dire as the government is making it out to be. And to the extent that there is a problem, it’s due more to a decade of aggressive policing, obstinate federal law enforcement agencies, and the encroachment of law enforcement into the practice of medicine than lax government oversight. The DEA in particular has been scaring reputable doctors away from pain management since the late 1990s. People who suffer from chronic pain simply can’t find doctors willing to treat them over the long term. The unscrupulous doctors and pill mills in the headlines have sprung up to fill the void…

Despite the recent headlines about the rise in sales of prescription painkillers, chronic pain is still significantly under-treated in America. There are a number of reasons why. For one, there’s no diagnostic test to diagnose pain, so doctors must rely on patient descriptions of what they’re feeling. That can be tricky, because tolerance for pain varies widely from person to person. Culturally, pain has also long been viewed as something we encounter and endure as part of the human condition. In many religions, noble suffering is considered pious. Pain treatment is also a relatively new medical specialty; it didn’t have its own medical society until the early 1980s.

But the biggest barrier to effective pain treatment continues to be bad public policy, much of it driven by the war on drugs. Opioids — morphine, oxycodone, methadone, and other drugs derived from the opium plant (or synthetically structured to mimic it) — are the most effective way to treat severe and chronic pain. Emerging (but still controversial) treatments like long-term, high-dose opioid therapy have shown particular promise with chronic pain. Just this month, an article in the journal Science described another promising new therapy, in which large doses of the drugs delivered over a short period of time, shortly after an injury, may help prevent chronic pain from developing at all…

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