People Prescribed Opioids Are Not Automatically “Junkies”

To say that I am upset about the response to one of the 2016 Superbowl ads is an understatement. You probably saw it and side eyed it because we can all agree that no one wants to see Superbowl advertisements for medications used for stomach and digestive problems. I’m with you on that one. I’m talking about the black-and-white ad for people with OIC, opioid-induced constipation. The problem was how people responded to that ad. For example:

I get that this was supposed to be funny. And I’ll agree that it is definitely ironic that politicians keep talking about the opioid epidemic while the FDC approves a drug for OIC. But here’s the thing – there is a difference between people who are prescribed opioids and people who are “junkies.: There is a difference between people who are on opioids for chronic pain and addicts, although we also as a nation need to look at how we treat addicts because that, too, is an illness.

So today I’m taking this anger and frustration and putting them to good use. It’s time to talk about how people prescribed opioids for chronic pain are not automatically addicts.

People Prescribed Opioids for Pain Aren't Automatically Junkies

The only thing I’m addicted to is coffee. Let’s start with that. I am not addicted to my pain medication. When I am in less pain overall – as in my when main arthritis treatment has kicked in – I don’t take as much. The only thing I need from my opiate is pain relief, and if I can get that from other things, I don’t take it. What things? In addition to my pain medication, I use a heating pad, NSAID, yoga, chiropractor, higher steroid dose, etc. I do everything I possibly can to reduce my pain, and just because that can involve an opiate does not mean that I am an addict.

And another thing – I don’t want to take my pain medication, but it is without a doubt the only reason why I haven’t been to the ER since May 2014. Also, I really don’t enjoy spending my time rolling on the floor sobbing from pain. And I have a rather high pain tolerance; I keep burning my fingers in my toaster due to short bread problems and that’s a 3/10 for me. My pain tolerance is high and I’m still in excruciating pain on a regular basis because, you know, I live with a highly active autoimmune disease attacking my body. I don’t want to take my pain medication, but it’s so much better than the alternative.

My opiates are not my main pain-management treatment. Not by a long shot. I’m switching to Stelara injections from Rituxan infusions, and I also take the maximum amount of NSAID (anti-inflammatory) you can in a day. Actually, I take 3 medications daily for my arthritis pain, 3 daily for my fibromyalgia pain, plus 1 weekly for my arthritis. On top of that, I do yoga and walk every day, I use a heating pad for my fibromyalgia as needed, I see a chiropractor every week, and I do physical therapy exercises from my knee surgery every day. Oh, and I’ve also changed my diet. So my pain medication is NOT my primary source of pain relief, but it is the one thing I can take that immediately makes a large difference in my pain. And you want to shame me for that, for something I can’t control when I’m trying my best to feel better?

If you think all people prescribed opiates are junkies, you need to reevaluate what you think you know because most are #PatientsNotAddicts Click To Tweet

Statistics about Chronic Pain and Opioids

Let’s look at some statistics in case my personal experience is not enough for you. A study in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that 78% of people addicted to opiates were not prescribed the drug for any medical reason. A study by the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids found that 9 in 10 chronic pain patients tried a non-opiate based treatment before relying on opiates. Oh, and my favorite statistic? 96% of chronic pain patients on opioids do not become addicted. That’s right. Ninety-six percent.

78% of people addicted to opioids were never prescribed them. 96.7% of people prescribed opiates for chronic pain aren't addicted. Learn more about how they're #PatientsNotAddicts. Click To Tweet

Here’s the issue at the heart of the misunderstanding: 100 million Americans are affected by chronic pain, more than those with heart disease, cancer, and diabetes combined. We are the ones suffering the most from people making light of our struggles. We are the ones being treated like addicts while our bodies attack us. We are the ones suffering. Would you say that someone living with cancer was drug seeking and looking for opiates to get high, not for pain relief? Why would that be okay to someone living with chronic pain?

For more information, check out Maia Szalavitz’s article “How the War on Drugs Is Hurting Chronic Pain Patients” and Pat Anson’s article “Survey: Most Pain Patients Don’t Abuse Painkillers.”

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  • Reply Chelsea Jacobs

    ABSOLUTELY RIDICULOUS. So freaking insensitive. People are dumb.

    February 10, 2016 at 9:59 am
    • Reply Kate Mitchell

      Yup! I just don’t understand how these people don’t critically think about these things before posting. Especially since these are people in a position of influence!

      February 10, 2016 at 3:00 pm
  • Reply Theresa Hammons

    Great blog Kate! If only those who judge had to live 1 day in the life of a chronic pain sufferer…all of this “shame” would go away. The real shame is that people who truly need relief are ridiculed and made to suffer more because of the addicts and the “junkies”. Lack of education is truly the real root of this issue! Thank you for taking your time to help educate all and for your support of those who suffer with chronic pain!

    February 10, 2016 at 11:45 am
    • Reply Kate Mitchell

      Thank you! You’re absolutely right – lack of education is the root of the problem.

      February 10, 2016 at 3:00 pm
  • Reply Emily of Em Busy Living

    My mom takes different pain medications daily from a botched back surgery that left her with terrible nerve damage and constant back/leg pain. I hate knowing that people (like the ones you described) would think of my mom as a junkie or make it more difficult for her to find the relief she needs to live a semi-normal life.

    February 10, 2016 at 12:48 pm
    • Reply Kate Mitchell

      That’s what it really comes down to; these people don’t think about how we’re just trying to live a semi-normal life. It’s really unfortunate.

      February 10, 2016 at 3:01 pm
  • Reply Andrea Darst

    Thank you for discussing this! It is so frustrating for people who are on opiate medications for legitimate reasons! I, unfortunately, have a bad back, and have been on pain medication for almost 4 years. I tried everything: physical therapy, yoga, injections, had a disc decompression, and on and on. Nothing worked! For those who deal with back pain, you know that if your back is spasming and/or throbbing, it affects your movement in the rest of your body. My only option right now is a disc fusion surgery, which at the age of 34, is not something I want to do! The surgery has only about a 50% success rate, and fusing discs puts pressure on the rest of your discs, which then means more surgeries. So here I sit, in limbo, with only my pain medications to help relieve the pain. Sadly, my body is addicted to these, but I have been on the same dose for more than 2 years, and I take them as prescribed. I pass every drug test that is required by my pain management doctor, and still the pharmacists every month look at me like I’m a junky! Then, there’s the FDA “cracking” down on opiates, which they should look at people who are prescribed them for no reason, but I wish they’d do it on a case-by-case basis and not take away the medication from those who really need it. Such a frustrating situation!

    February 16, 2016 at 2:32 pm
    • Reply Kate Mitchell

      Oh my goodness! I’m so sorry that you’ve had to deal with all of this, too. You bring up so many good points here. Best of luck!

      February 23, 2016 at 1:21 pm
    • Reply JAM661

      Andrea, you are not addicted to your pain medication but dependant on them. Basically many things can cause changes to your body when you suddenly stop taking them. For example you stop taking your blood pressure medication for your high blood pressure. Depending on how long you have been on the medication and what it is stopping it suddenly could cause your blood pressure to sky rocket to a much higher reading then you had before you even took the meds. Another example coffee. If you just stop drinking it you could find yourself a few hours after you would normally drink it having a major headache, tired , having a hard time concentrating and so on. Are you addicted to your blood pressure medication. NO! Are you dependant? Yes. Every addict who addicted to there opiate meds is dependant on it. However, not everyone who is dependent on there opiate medications is an addict. There is a big difference.

      May 10, 2016 at 12:59 am
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  • Reply kaoruchan180

    you know what the worst part is? I have gastroparesis which is made worse by the opiod constipation side effect (it’s in fact specifically the same kind of constipation as the illness causes iirc) and I was on percocet for two years before anyone even MENTIONED it caused constipation at all!

    But every visit with every doctor, even though they weren’t providing the RX themselves, was happy to give me a lecture on addiction. I’ve been on the same dose for 5 years now and no one will refill my prescription because “addiction risk” I was only getting maximum 45 5 mg pills A YEAR. (they expired last month and I haven’t been able to do anything but lie in bed since).

    I’ve been put on so many dangerous medications, some I ended up dependent on, that I was given no warning of side effects. Fuck I have been prescribed shit with known interactions with my other medications and mocked when I complained about it. But no, they want me to be scared of painkillers when the pain has ruined my life and made me hope I hurry up and just die from illness because the pain only gets worse and they cut my treatment instead of giving me help.

    May 9, 2016 at 7:31 pm
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