Is Opioid Medication Doing More Harm Than Good?
Opioid medicine is both a blessing and a curse.
Opioid medications were a godsend for patients suffering from extreme, acute pain. But with the advent of advanced pain treatment, excessive prescribing of opioids stopped helping and started hurting instead.
A History of Opiates
Opioids and other analgesics have a long history that goes back further than you might think.
In 1600s Europe, physicians used opium derived from the poppy papaver somniferum to treat their patient’s pain. By the 1800s, developments in pain treatment saw chloroform and ether become the most-used anesthetics for surgery. But even then, there were questions about the ethics of using pain relief treatments. Doctors debated the morals of operating on unconscious patients, while others questioned whether pain relief would interfere with the healing process.
The turn of the 20th century saw the rise of natural alkaloids, the precursor to today’s synthetic opioids. Doctors, however, were hesitant to prescribe these types of medications. Despite the many positive effects of the medicines, there was concern that they could make patients more vulnerable to addiction. These fears weren’t unfounded because the drugs they prescribed,
Ironically, included morphine and heroin—both highly addictive substances.
It’s clear that the debate surrounding pain relief treatment has been ongoing for a long time. The ultimate physician’s dilemma is: are prescription pain medications like opioids doing more harm than good?
The Beginnings of a Crisis
According to the Pain Research Forum, chronic pain affects approximately one-third of all Americans. And unfortunately, chronic pain is difficult to treat effectively – specialists are always searching for ways to help chronic pain sufferers without worsening their condition through long-term drug use.
Pain as a field of medical study truly coalesced in the 1960s. By the 1980s, progressive pain treatment specialists believed that opioids were associated with “low incidences of addictive behavior,” and opioid medicine was an effective way to treat chronic pain. What came next was a 20-year push by the pharmaceutical industry for doctors to prescribe opioids with frightening abandon.
While the notion of ‘safe and effective pain treatment’ isn’t the sole cause of today’s ravaging opioid crisis, it’s undoubtedly a significant contributor. At its core, the problem was—and is—rooted in what psychiatric and biobehavioral science researcher Marcia Meldrum calls “a prescription culture.”
What The Experts Say
Steven D. Feinberg, MD and pain management specialist in California says, “The pendulum swung all the way in the other direction.” Rather than feeling better, people who were prescribed large doses of opioid medications stayed the same, while some even got worse. For them, it was no longer treatment. It was dependency.
Gary Franklin of the University of Washington says there’s good reason to believe that the long-term use of opioids to treat chronic pain is having the opposite of its intended effect. It doesn’t benefit patients and poses a higher risk for harm, addiction, overdose, and even death. Says Franklin, the problem started with organized medicine, and it will take reforms to the organized medical system to solve it.