Many National Pain Report readers contacted 60 Minutes to complain about the segment they aired on November 1 regarding the increase in heroin abuse and linking to people who had been using narcotic pain medication. While we can’t republish all that we received, we thought that Kristen Ogden’s letter to 60 Minutes was worthy of your attention:
Your story about heroin use in Ohio is another example of main-stream media hyping what’s been described as the “prescription drug abuse epidemic” while totally missing the larger epidemic taking place in our country. Do you know that there are 100 million adults suffering from chronic pain in the United States?1 According to an analysis released by NIH in August 2015, 40 million American adults suffer from severe ongoing pain. Many of these people are undertreated for their pain, if they receive treatment at all. Chronic intractable pain sufferers are invisible as a group; as individuals they suffer from lack of understanding, stigma, and demeaning treatment. They are often presumed to be drug addicts or drug seekers with no basis in fact. Many intractable pain patients have genetic anomalies that impact their ability to metabolize medications; high doses are often required to relieve pain in these individuals. Some long-term severe pain patients have failed all standard treatments and medications. Treatment with high-dose opioids, as a last resort, is very successful for some of them and is the only treatment that will relieve their pain. My husband, age 65, is one of these patients. After suffering from severe chronic pain for most of his life, he has experienced his best quality of life for the past 5 years since he started on high-dose opioids.
Here is the big story you should be reporting: that millions of American adults are suffering from severe pain, and they cannot get help to relieve their pain. I am not talking about minimal or moderate pain. I am talking about pain that patients describe as suicidal – pain so bad it’s all you can think about. This nation’s war on drugs has had far-reaching unintended consequences on millions of people who are now suffering. Overzealous efforts by the DEA have created a chilling effect on physicians and pharmacies; it’s hard for patients to find a doctor who will prescribe opioid pain medications even if that’s all that will help a person.
Intractable pain has been defined as: “A severe, constant pain that is not curable by any known means and which causes a bed or house-bound state and early death if not adequately treated. It causes adverse biologic effects on the body’s cardiovascular, hormone, and neurologic systems.” Another definition: “Pain which is excruciating, constant, incurable and of such severity that it dominates virtually every conscious moment, produces mental and physical debilitation and may produce a desire to commit suicide for the sole purpose of stopping the pain.”
I ask you to stop and really think about what these definitions are saying. Can you imagine what it would really be like to suffer for years from excruciating headache and body-wide pain that never, ever stops? This is what my husband’s life was like for many years. Since his pain has been effectively controlled with his current regimen of high-dose opioid pain medications, the magnitude of the improvement in his quality of life defies description. Although he still has limitations he must deal with, since he began high-dose opioid pain treatment in 2010, he has been able to participate in numerous activities that were not previously possible such as engaging in social activities and going out for dinner with me. He has been able to resume an almost-normal life with his pain well-controlled.
In order to obtain this greatly improved quality of life for my husband, we have for the last 5 years traveled every 12 weeks from our home in Virginia to West Covina, California for appointments with Dr. Forest Tennant. Dr. Tennant has operated his pain clinic since 1975, and is among the most knowledgeable pain physicians in the country. Unfortunately, the few doctors in Virginia who, in the past, would have known how to treat intractable pain patients appropriately with opioids are no longer practicing. Now we also face numerous initiatives being undertaken by various HHS agencies to severely restrict opioid daily dosages and duration of treatment – all in the well-intended effort to curb prescription drug overdose. If the recent draft guidelines proposed by the CDC were implemented as written, they would impose a strongly recommended daily cap of 90 mg (MED or morphine equivalent dose). That would be less than 5% of my husband’s required dose to receive relief of his pain.
Every time a major media outlet reports on prescription opioid drugs and fails to mention that there are literally millions of law-abiding adults who can only be helped by these drugs and who use them responsibly, a tremendous disservice is done to people who suffer. Severe chronic pain can be brought on in a moment, and it can happen to anyone. 60 Minutes, you need to get your act together and report the other side of the story.
1 Institute of Medicine 2011 report “Relieving Pain in America: A Blueprint for Transforming Prevention, Care, Education, and Research.”