There are changes afoot in the use of opioid agonists for chronic pain treatment. This blog has described the epidemic of opioid dependence that has killed tens of thousands of people across the country over the past few years, and the changes are directed toward reducing the harm caused by this epidemic.
A number of interventions have been proposed. Vicodin, the number one-selling medication in the country, contains the opioid hydrocodone combined with acetaminophen, the agent in Tylenol. Hydrocodone and Vicodin are currently ‘Schedule III’ medications, and will likely move to Schedule II, where oxycodone, Oxycontin, and Percocet are currently assigned. The change will have significant impact on the use of Vicodin and hydrocodone, since medications classified as Schedule II must be ordered on written prescriptions—i.e. they cannot be called in to the pharmacy. There are a number of other limitations on Schedule II medications; the prescriptions cannot have refills for example, and a maximum of 90 days of medication can be ordered at any one time. The laws that govern diversion of Schedule II medications are more strict as well, meaning that trading or selling Vicodin or hydrocodone to a friend or relative will carry significant risk of prosecution—and incarceration.
There are proposals for additional certification and training for doctors who prescribe pain medications, beyond the current DEA licenses that typically allow registrants to prescribe all of the controlled substances, without distinguishing between classes or uses of medications. These proposals anger the ‘pain treatment lobby,’ whose members claim that additional certification requirements will lessen the availability of pain medications. And they are correct—that is, after all, the whole point of the proposed changes.
There are a couple issues that merit discussion that have no clear right or wrong answer—at least in my opinion. First, in the debate over additional certification, there is little argument that such changes would reduce the number of doctors who prescribe opioids. Many doctors will decide that it is not worth the hassle and cost to obtain the special certification. Some others will see the requirement as a golden opportunity to leave the pain med prescribing to others, as they will be able to tell their patients ‘I’m sorry—I’m not allowed to prescribe them’—an easy way to avoid confrontation with patients asking for pain pills who doctors consider to have borderline indications for them.
We don’t know, though, whether other doctors will see the changes as business opportunities—growth in a new specialty of ‘pain pill prescribing’ for example—and fill the void left by less-frequent prescribers. And if there is a reduction in pain medication prescribing, will the reduction affect the people who don’t really NEED pain medications—i.e. the patients with mild lumbar strain, who would do much better using a heating pad and ibuprofen, and perhaps learn to lift without bending at the waist? Or will people with severe pain that truly warrants opioid medication find it impossible to have their pain adequately treated?
People should be aware that there are very significant differences in opinion over the proper use of opioid pain medications between physicians. For years, doctors were taught that people with ‘real pain’ rarely become addicted to pain medications. I was stunned when I read a study a couple years ago that claimed that less than 10% of patient who are prescribed pain medications develop opioid dependence. My clinical experience, after working for ten years in pain treatment and for about 20 years as a physician, suggest a number at least five times higher.
More and more doctors are realizing that for most people, opioid pain medications do little to increase function. People become tolerant to whatever dose of pain medication they are taking, and with that tolerance, the pain relief goes away—unless the dose is increased, which only repeats the cycle at a higher tolerance level. Patients become slaves to their medications, developing severe withdrawal from missing even one dose. Their high tolerance makes it difficult to treat pain from surgery, or from other painful conditions that the patient may develop. Finally, there is more and more evidence for the phenomenon of ‘opioid-induced hyperalgesia’ where pain symptoms are ultimately increased by opioid pain medications.
But patients still want pain medications when they are in pain, no matter how many lectures they hear about ‘decreased function,’ hyperalgesia, or tolerance. Doctors are placed in the position of giving patients what they ask for, even if it is ultimately bad for them— or protecting patients and standing up to their anger. Standing up to patient anger is not what many doctors signed up for when they went to medical school, and goes against their desire to help people—and to be liked for helping people.
And I don’t know if any course or certificate will help doctors deal with THAT.