Tag Archives: pain medication

A Warning About Your Pain Meds

Danger Sign in Front of Sea

At first glance, you might wonder why I’m linking to a news article from Des Moines, Iowa, about a man accused of rape who decided at the last minute pre-trial to fire himself as his own lawyer. What the heck does the right to represent oneself have to do with chronic pain?

I’ll show you. It has to do with his victim. And if you skimmed the article, as most of us do, you’d easily miss it:

Friday’s events provided another twist in the case, which has been unusual in almost every aspect. Hays is accused of entering the home of his friend [Victim’s Husband] and climbing into bed with [Victim]. Prosecutors alleged Hays raped [Victim] for more than three hours on Sept. 29, 2009. Hays maintains his innocence, but has not said what happened that night.
. . .
Meanwhile, both [Victim and Victim’s Husband] died before the case went to trial. [Victim] suffered from fibromyalgia, a chronic muscle and connective tissue disorder that causes sufferers intense pain, sleep disturbance and other symptoms. She died of an accidental pain medication overdose on Feb. 1. [Victim’s Husband] committed suicide three weeks later.

(I’m leaving out their names because she was a sexual assault victim, even though the linked-to article contains their full names. I’m assuming the names have been public for awhile; I just don’t feel comfortable using them, as a rape survivor myself.)

Accidental pain medication overdoses have been in the news a lot lately. Seems I can’t open a news site lately without seeing at least one headline about the rise in accidental overdose cases in U.S. emergency rooms. Now, I need to be clear: I am NOT convinced that the problem is as widespread and critical as the media has reported it to be. It’s pretty much conclusive that most major outlets confuse addiction with dependence, and it’s the least-well-kept secret in this country that the press sensationalizes statistics in order to sell copy (or adspace).

But clearly something’s going on here, and it needs to be talked about honestly.

I’ve never made a secret of how I feel about prescription pain medication. In case you missed it, though, let me reiterate: I’m all for it, when it’s appropriately prescribed and taken. It’s saved my life, and that’s not hyperbole.

But it’s a good idea to remind ourselves of the facts. Pain medication can kill, when it’s not taken correctly. It can interact with any number of other substances — including benign crap like vitamins and herbal supplements. It can react with alcohol — even a little bit of alcohol. It can be over-taken, as when you forget that you already had that evening dose because the kids were screaming and your husband was ranting about work or whatever.

We tend to think of overdoses as happening to … you know, not to be impolite, but “those other people.” The ones who look/act/live nothing like us.

But as the news article above reminds us painfully: it does, in fact, happen to “us.” All the time? No. Inevitably? Of course not. Way too often for any compassionate person to accept? Oh, yeah.

Dependence Is Not Addiction

It’s no secret I’m a fan of tramadol. Hell, it’s the name of my site. Those little white pills saved my life. So it should be no surprise that I’m all for prescription pain medication when it’s used appropriately.

And it should be no surprise that one of my pet peeves is the fear-mongering that runs rampant and unchecked in the medical community that stops professionals from prescribing pain meds to treat chronic pain assertively.

What’s behind this insane aversion to the pills? I think there are a couple of things at work here. One is that somehow, we’ve abdicated responsibility for medical decisions to law enforcement officials. That’s messed up.

Another is this ineffective, wasteful “war on drugs” with its screwball insistence on locking up as criminals those who merely use, alongside the devils that push the crappy stuff on them. It’s swept up legitimate uses of pain medication along with the highly-publicized legitimate cases of prescription pain med addiction and the street-drug abusers.

And finally, I think there’s a fundamental misunderstanding that fuels this mess: too many folks are confusing dependence and addiction. Need proof? Here’s a page on drug dependence from the University of Maryland Medical Center — and look at the very first sentence:

Definition of Drug dependence:

Drug addiction, or dependence, is the compulsive use of a substance, despite its negative or dangerous effects.

Right there, in the very first sentence. A medical university gets it wrong. Now, true, in the next few paragraphs, it hedges the bet a bit:

However, a physical dependence on a substance (needing the drug to function) is not always part of the definition of addiction. Some drugs (for example, certain blood pressure medications) do not cause addiction but they can cause physical dependence. Other drugs cause addiction without leading to physical dependence. Cocaine is an example.

But it’s too late. The damage has been done. The first sentence makes it clear — “drug dependence = drug addiction.” The subsequent qualifications are too little, too late.

What’s the Difference Between Dependence and Addiction?

So what exactly is the difference between being dependent on a drug and being addicted to it?

  • Dependence is a normal physical condition, while addiction is an abnormal psychological condition.
  • Dependence simply means your body has grown “used” to the drug; addiction means you psychologically crave it, usually in higher and higher doses.
  • Dependence does not in and of itself interfere with your daily functions and life; addiction devastates.

We, as the fibromyalgia and chronic pain community, simply must do a better job of educating the world about this distinction. We need to speak out when our friends get it wrong. We need to write to editors of newspapers whose journalists get it wrong. We need to — yes! — correct our own doctors if need be.

The reluctance to speak up is completely understandable. None of us wants to be labelled an addict or drug-seeking (the medical profession’s cute little label for anyone whose pain they don’t quite understand — basically, a less emotionally charged way of calling someone an addict).

There’s so much stigma in this society against pain medication that when we speak up for any aspect of it as a treatment option, we’re automatically aware that somewhere, in some file, there’s a giant red asterisk being placed beside our names.

But we have to get over that if things are to change. The actual risk of addiction has been proven to be quite low, and when no conservative measures are working, why on earth should we be required to hurt like hell — often becoming nonfunctioning and disabled in the process, thereby putting an unnecessary drain on government resources — when we don’t have to be?

I do believe that lifestyle changes can hold chronic pain at bay in many instances — but not all. Why should we be forced to hurt like hell while we make those changes? All because some people don’t understand that dependence does not mean addiction.

I realize others may disagree with me strongly. If you’ve ever had a family member addicted to any substance, as I have, you may well be experiencing a strong emotional reaction to what I’m writing here. That’s fine.

Please understand: I’m not saying addiction to legal prescription pain medication does not exist. I’m saying it’s not a foregone conclusion, and it’s not a sufficient reason for chronic pain patients being forced to rely on ineffective conservative treatments, when there are legitimate medications that make them feel better and give them their lives back — which is exactly what tramadol did for me.