How Opioid Overprescription Feeds Into The Opioid Epidemic

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April 18, 2022

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Family lore recalls that my grandfather, succumbing to stomach cancer in the mid-1960s, “died addicted to morphine.” Decades before the onslaught of AIDS sparked the hospice and palliative care movements, the confluence of pain, dependence, and addiction was confused and regrettably moralized. Since then, the science behind pain and addiction physiology has excelled, but our understanding of how these conditions intertwine with each other remains limited by stigma, assumptions, and the separation of the underlying science that connects these distinct conditions. By unifying the disparate disciplines of pain and addiction, we can engage the wisdom of each to best help patients through difficult times. 

The Intersection of Pain and Addiction Medicine

The pain and addiction specialties often complement each other in under-recognized ways. While pain management has long utilized extended-release medications to stabilize pain throughout the day, addiction treatment similarly utilizes long-acting agents like methadone and buprenorphine/naloxone (Suboxone) to mitigate problematic behaviors associated with opioids (Purdue Pharma’s obscuring of the low trough levels that made OxyContin so famously addictive is the sort of ‘exception that proves the rule,’ sparking problematic pain and withdrawal symptoms all at once. While insomnia may be outside of the pain service’s realm, an addiction specialist might recognize adrenaline-driven opioid withdrawals as a crucial contributor to poor sleep and anxiety. Similarly, depression may not fall under a pain clinic’s scope, thus the common role of opioids as depressants may not be recognized - nor the paradoxical role of opioids in mood elevation among select patients. Addiction providers were closely attuned to the threat of opioid overdose before pain management practices caught up to that danger. 

A common complication of opioid use, opioid induced hyperalgesia (a central sensitization syndrome that causes even mild stimuli to be felt as pain) particularly illustrates the need to combine the wisdom of both fields to optimize patient outcomes. Historically, pain clinics have responded to increasing pain with higher opioid doses that may worsen OIH symptoms. Many Suboxone providers recognize buprenorphine/naloxone (Suboxone)'s role in alleviating the vague but distressing complaints associated with OIH exist. In my experience, primary care providers who are licensed to prescribe buprenorphine for addiction are often the first to offer buprenorphine to pain patients who experience predictable consequences of opioids long before they meet the criteria for substance use disorder.

There are many ways that the pain and addiction fields can interact more effectively. In the basic sciences, medical trainees should be taught the physiology and pathophysiology common to both pain and addiction, recognizing that prescribed and illicit opioids follow the same core pathways, albeit with altered effects when illicit supplies are adulterated or subject to varying availability.

How buprenorphine/naloxone (Suboxone) Should Be Used Most Effectively

In clinical practice, buprenorphine can be offered to mitigate OIH when appropriate, as well as to reduce opioid tolerance prior to planned invasive procedures (I have routinely offered chronic opioid patients a transition to buprenorphine in the weeks before surgery to help maximize opioids’ effectiveness in the perioperative period). The myth of “rock bottom” should be set aside in favor of recognizing problematic dependence and diverting patients to buprenorphine before red-flag behaviors evolve into full-blown substance use disorders.

Buprenorphine/naloxone (Suboxone) should be considered in lieu of opioids for pain patients who are also dependent on benzodiazepines; while considered grossly unsafe in conjunction with benzodiazepines, buprenorphine is still far safer than sedatives plus pure opioid agonists. Buprenorphine/naloxone (Suboxone) tapers could be offered after medium-term opioid use following severe injuries and surgeries; in his 2019 account of a motorcycle accident that shattered his ankle, bioethicist Travis Rieder describes the frustration he faced in seeking a medical provider versed in transitioning acute injury patients off opioids - a process that could have been handled readily by a provider versed in buprenorphine/naloxone (Suboxone) tapers. 

Finally, addictive potential should always be considered as novel agents such as ketamine come into practice - not to deny their utility, but to effectively balance risk with benefit (I trained under a psychiatrist who was old enough to remember being skeptical when Xanax was marketed as the less-addictive alternative to Valium in the early 1980s, a claim that is laughable forty years later). 

Though pain and addiction are necessarily separate diagnostic categories, the physiology and pathophysiology of opioid are almost indistinguishable between prescribed and illicit use. By choosing opioids as a first-line pain approach for several decades, American medicine has neatly bridged the biochemical gap between pain and addiction - leaving patients vulnerable to unsafe dosing strategies and bewildered by sudden mandates to taper down medications they have received for years. Pain and addiction patients would benefit from the tighter collaboration between the two disciplines, not to reinforce the stigma and regret that my family lived with after the grandfather's death, but to normalize understanding opioid functions in human bodies and how we can maximize their potential while mitigating their ultimate harms.

Bicycle Health uses buprenorphine/naloxone (Suboxone) in its treatment program to achieve proven success. To learn more about the success rates and safety of Bicycle Health’s telemedicine addiction treatment in comparison to other common treatment options, call us at (844) 943-2514 or schedule an appointment here.

For more information on buprenorphine/naloxone (Suboxone), opioid dependence, and our telehealth treatment model, please visit our FAQ.

Header Photo by Christina Victoria Craft on Unsplash

Originally Published in KevinMD

Dr. Julie Craig, MD

Dr. Julie Craig is board certified in family medicine (2010) and addiction medicine (2015). She attended medical school at Oregon Health & Science University, then completed the Northern New Mexico Family Medicine Residency Program in Santa Fe.

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