There is a new miniseries on Hulu called “Dopesick” that explores the origins of the opioid epidemic that continues to devastate America. The actions of the Sackler family and Purdue Pharma in the marketing of their supposed “miraculous” pain medication Oxycontin, which they claimed was non-addictive, is generating a great deal of outrage on social media. Legal wrangling over a proposed settlement continues to play out in court.
There is another group who is expressing outrage: those who suffer from chronic pain conditions. I learned a lot about how brutal and devastating intractable pain can be by watching my mother die of cancer. The last several months of her life were torture because new laws designed to curb opioid usage made it difficult for my mother to procure the level of pain medication she needed. While health experts are quick to point out that the laws weren’t meant to target terminal cancer patients, my mother is proof that in fact they did. First was the burden of having to come into the office and see the doctor instead of being able to request a refill over the phone. Then there was the reduction in the amount prescribed and finally a battle in getting an opioid prescription filled at all. Her doctor mistakenly thought my mother wasn’t dying, but just addicted to opioids. When I tried to follow up, I was also treated with doubt and suspicion. The final battle came with trying to get my mother enrolled in hospice, so she could get access to the morphine that she so desperately needed. My mother only received morphine for about two weeks before she died, and I never felt like I was able to get her pain under control because it had been left unchecked for so long.
Unfortunately the addiction epidemic unleashed by Oxycontin has impacted those who actually need such pain medication to function. Beyond terminal conditions like cancer, there are incurable conditions that cause excruciating pain. Ehlers-Danlos syndromes (EDS) is one such condition, which affects the joints and can cause nerve pain and dislocations among other excruciating symptoms. These victims of the opioid epidemic are often forgotten or made to feel like they are addicts for wanting access to effective treatment. They get told to try acupuncture or yoga, or change their diet, or try cannabis, etc. Most of these people have tried a variety of treatments and are frustrated that because of the addiction stigma, they are being denied access to what was the only treatment that worked for them.
Because of my mother’s experience with pain, I have compassion for and am not dismissive of those who are living with conditions that cause extreme pain. The medical community needs to do better to provide effective pain relief for those who truly need it.