withdrawal

Toward a Healthy Relationship with Opioids

In the June 14th Wall Street Journal, Johns Hopkins University bioethicist Travis Rieder, in an excellent essay, shared with readers his battle with pain resulting from a devastating accident, the effectiveness of opioids in controlling the pain, and the hell he went through when he was too rapidly tapered off of the opioids to which he had become physically dependent. Like most patients requiring long term pain management with opioids, he developed a physical dependence, which is often mistakenly equated with addiction by policymakers and many in the media. 

The aggressive schedule launched me into withdrawal, and I learned viscerally, firsthand, what the absence of opioids can do to someone whose brain has become accustomed to them. Those symptoms include increased sensitivity to the very pain that the opioids counteract, as well as extreme flu-like symptoms, insomnia and crippling depression. I came to understand why people sometimes go back onto deadly dangerous drugs: because the alternative is such profound suffering that it makes you want to die.

I have criticized policymakers for their ham-handed approach based upon a misinterpretation and misapplication of the guidelines on pain management with opioids, released in 2016 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, herehere, and here. As explained in an article I co-authored in the Journal of Pain Research in February 2019, this blunt reaction is based upon the false assumption that opioid-related overdose deaths from nonmedical use is primarily a result of doctors treating patients in pain.

In his essay, Dr. Rieder levels similar criticisms:

Perhaps the greatest challenge about them [opioids] today is to resist the urge to be simplistic or reactionary. America’s current crisis of overuse has led some prescribers to avoid the drugs completely, and it has led politicians to occasionally consider ham-fisted policy solutions, like limiting the lengths or dosages of prescriptions regardless of any individual patient’s needs. But when a medication has both risks and benefits, what we need isn’t one-size-fits-all policies but nuance. 

Dr. Rieder was one of dozens of scholars, academics, physicians, and pain experts who signed a letter to the Oregon Health Authority in March, authored by Stanford University Medical School Professor Sean Mackey, urging against the Authority’s plans to force a rapid tapering off of opioids on all of the chronic pain patients in Oregon’s Medicaid system. That letter, plus push-back from patient advocacy groups, caused the Oregon Health Authority to put its plans on hold. It should not be lost on readers of this blog post that such interventions in the practice of medicine and the delivery of health care  are part and parcel of a state-run health care system.

No, Babies Are NOT Born Addicted to Opioids

“A crisis is a terrible thing to waste,” is a phrase coined by Stanford economist Paul Romer. Politicians are always in search of new crises to address—new fires to put out—with rapid and decisive action. In their passion to appear heroic to their constituents they often act in haste, not taking the time to develop a deep and nuanced understanding of the issue at hand, insensitive to the notion that their actions might actually exacerbate the crisis.

An example of that lack of understanding was made apparent in a press release by the office of House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) on June 22 supporting legislation that packages together over 70 bills (H.R.6) aimed at addressing the opioid (now mostly heroin and fentanyl) overdose crisis. The bills mostly double down on the same feckless—often deleterious—policies that government is already using to address the crisis. The release stated, “Whip Scalise highlighted a Slidell, Louisiana family whose son was born addicted to opioids, a syndrome called NAS, as a result of his mother’s battle with addiction.” 

The press release quoted Representative Scalise:

I highlight Kemper, a young boy from my district in Slidell, Louisiana. He was born addicted to opioids because his mother, while she was pregnant, was addicted to opioids herself…this example highlights something the Centers for Disease Control has noted. That is once every 25 minutes in America a baby is born addicted to opioids. Once every 25 minutes. That’s how widespread it is, just for babies that are born.

Before crowing that the “House Takes Action to Combat the Opioid Crisis,” as the press release was titled, Representative Scalise should get his science right. No baby is ever born addicted to opioids. As medical science has known for years, there is a difference between addiction and physical dependence—on a molecular level. Drs. Nora Volkow and Thomas McLellan of the National Institute on Drug Abuse pointed out in a 2016 article in the New England Journal of Medicine that addiction is a disease, and “genetic vulnerability accounts for at least 35 to 40% of the risk associated with addiction.” Addiction features compulsive drug use in spite of harmful, self-destructive consequences.

Physical dependence, on the other hand, is very different. As with many other classes of drugs, including antidepressants like Prozac or Lexapro, long-term use of opioids is associated with the development of a physical dependence on the drug. Abruptly stopping the drug can lead to severe withdrawal symptoms. A physically dependent patient needs the drug in order to function while avoiding withdrawal. Dependence is addressed by gradually reducing the dosage of the drug over a safe time frame. Once the dependence is overcome, such a patient will not have a compulsion to resume the drug.

Afghanistan: Do We Stay or Do We Go Now?

In the last three years, the United States has tripled the number of troops in Afghanistan, increased the number of drone strikes in neighboring Pakistan, and killed Osama bin Laden—the highest of high-value targets. President Obama has more than enough victories under his belt to stick to his timeline and substantially draw down the number of troops from Afghanistan.

A Debate About Troops

The United States will begin drawing down troops in Afghanistan this July. The White House is desperately trying to seize the narrative of the withdrawal claiming that the cuts will be “real” even as Defense Secretary Robert Gates is arguing for the opposite.

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