By Katie Pearce
Experts say the United States is in the throes of an opioid epidemic, as more than two million Americans have become dependent on or abused prescription pain pills and street drugs.
Opioids are drugs formulated to replicate the pain-reducing properties of opium. They include both legal painkillers like morphine, oxycodone, or hydrocodone prescribed by doctors for acute or chronic pain, as well as illegal drugs like heroin or illicitly made fentanyl.
The word “opioid” is derived from the word “opium.”
In 2016, there were more than 63,600 overdose deaths in the United States, including 42,249 that involved an opioid (66.4%). That’s an average of 115 opioid overdose deaths each day.
The number of opioid prescriptions dispensed by doctors steadily increased from 112 million prescriptions in 1992 to a peak of 282 million in 2012, according to the market research firm IMS Health.
The number of prescriptions dispensed has since declined, falling to 236 million in 2016.
“I had come out on the other side,” Rieder, a bioethicist at Johns Hopkins, writes in an article published today in Health Affairs.
For many patients who are prescribed opioids for pain, Rieder says, this is not the outcome. Instead of passing through the gauntlet of withdrawal, a large number of patients who start with prescriptions for opioid painkillers end up with chronic pill addictions or turn to heroin for a cheaper fix.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, medical providers in the U.S. wrote nearly a quarter of a billion prescriptions for opioids—drugs such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine, and methadone. That’s enough for every American adult to have their own bottle of pills. The CDC estimates that 91 Americans die every day from overdosing on opioids, including both prescriptions and heroin. Deaths from prescription opioids have more than quadrupled since 1999.
A Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation survey published last month found that one-third of Americans who had taken prescription opioids for at least two months became addicted to or physically dependent on the painkillers. Moreover, almost all long-term users said they were introduced to the drugs by a doctor’s prescription—yet six in 10 said doctors offered no advice on how or when to stop taking the drugs.
Fortunately for Rieder, the potent medley of pills he was taking after his May 2015 accident failed to create a psychological addiction.
“I was kind of repulsed the drugs,” he said in an interview last week.
But the biological dependence was there—the unavoidable physiological consequence for any opioid user who’s built up a tolerance. Rieder powered through his withdrawal with willpower and family support. However, received little competent guidance from medical professionals as he weaned himself off the drugs. The more than 10 doctors he sought out during his withdrawal offered conflicting advice, many suggesting he simply returns to the pills. After being turned away from a pain management clinic, he called a methadone clinic but couldn’t be accommodated for five days. When he protested the wait, he was referred to the emergency room, where it was likely he would be prescribed the very drugs he was trying to quit.
In his article in Health Affairs, Rieder calls the medical community’s inadequate training and resources for treating opioid withdrawal a moral failure—and one that’s especially glaring as America faces what experts agree is an opioid epidemic.
In Health Affairs, he writes:
If a physician prescribes a highly addictive medication for pain management, with serious and predictable withdrawal effects, then he or she has a duty to see that patient through the weaning process as safely and comfortably as possible. Or, alternatively: He or she has a duty to refer the patient to someone who will be able to see the patient through that process.
Rieder’s recovery didn’t end where his article leaves off. He walked with a cane until recently, and he underwent another foot surgery last winter. For that process, Rieder became his own health care advocate, consulting the Blaustein Pain Treatment Center at Johns Hopkins for expert advice on how he could prevent another opioid tailspin. Though avoiding the drugs entirely wasn’t an option, he pressed doctors for the lowest and shortest doses possible.
“I was in a lot of pain from that surgery, but I wasn’t willing to fully medicate the pain,” he said in the interview. “I didn’t want to risk it.”
Rieder recognizes that the route he took to recovery was cultivated by the advantages of his own research and personal connections at Johns Hopkins.
“There’s something wrong with the system when it’s a privilege” to access such options, he said.
Michael Erdek, a pain treatment specialist who works at the Blaustein Center, said though Rieder’s initial experience isn’t necessarily the norm for patients on opioids, his story is “not shocking.”
Broadly, the cultural tide is shifting, Erdek said, against the “knee-jerk” prescriptions for opioids of the early 2000s as the public better understands the risks of tolerance and addiction.
“It’s reached a level of societal awareness now,” Erdek said.
But the medical community at large, Erdek suggested, still hasn’t grappled successfully with the complications of withdrawal. A lack of specialized expertise on these issues can lead to passing the buck among different physicians, as Rieder experienced.
“There’s a bit of a mystery about who is going to deal with these types of patients,” Erdek said.
For Erdek, who recently joined the Berman Institute of Bioethics as an affiliate faculty member, the most resonant angle of Rieder’s story is its call for better education of medical professionals.
Johns Hopkins recently started offering a pain curriculum for first-year medical students, he said, but such training is still far from mainstream. According to a survey in the American Medical Association’s Journal of Ethics, the overall picture for pain management is “one of inadequacy and dissatisfaction on the part of practitioners,” with only 3 percent of U.S. medical schools dedicating any part of their curriculum to pain education until recently.
“As physicians, as ethicists,” Erdek said, “what we need to do is come up with a responsible, ethically sound way of dealing with this education.”
For Rieder, who hopes to focus on policy solutions in his future work, the issue is a moral imperative.
“Opioid withdrawal isn’t minor,” he writes in his article. “That kind of suffering matters and its seriousness needs to be reflected in the way we deal with prescription opioids.”