The prescription of opioid painkillers, such as OxyContin, Percocet, and Vicodin, is a popular way for doctors to treat chronic non-malignant medical conditions, such as lower back pain. Recently, however, the effectiveness of such treatment has been called into question. A disturbing new trend reveals that there is actually very weak evidence that opioid painkillers are safe or effective for the long-term treatment of non-malignant pain. Moreover, these drugs are highly addictive and can produce significant states of depression and anxiety.
Richard A. Friedman, a professor of clinical psychiatry and the director of the psychopharmacology clinic at the Weill Cornell Medical College, recently wrote a piece for the New York Times where he detailed the problems with use of opioid painkillers to treat long-lasting medical conditions. Traditionally, he noted, opioid painkillers were used to treat short-term pain, such as recovering from surgery or that stemming from terminal diseases like cancer. However, in the 1990’s, healthcare providers began to greatly increase the use of opioid painkillers to treat chronic conditions, such as lower back pain or sciatica.
Why? Because drug companies found an open space in the market and aggressively marketed these new powerful opioid painkillers to medical providers. Dr. Friedman put it simply: “The pitch to doctors seemed sensible and seductive: Be proactive with pain and treat it aggressively. After all, doctors have frequently been accused of being insensitive to pain or undertreating it. Here was the corrective, and who in their right mind would argue that physicians shouldn’t try to relieve pain whenever possible.”
The marketing strategy proved to be highly effective as the medical use of these drugs grew tenfold over the past 20 years. The problem, however, is that the doctors prescribing painkillers are not adequately trained in pain management. Traditionally, these drugs were managed and prescribed by pain specialists in a hospital setting. Now, they are being prescribed by primary care physicians in the office. The problem is that these primary care physicians are relying on the marketing campaigns of drug companies to measure the effectiveness of these drugs in treating long-term pain, rather than scientifically verifiable studies.
Because of this, emergency rooms are being flooded with suicides and opioid overdoses linked to these painkillers. In fact, in 2013, opioids accounted for 37 percent of all fatal drug overdoses. While it must be noted that not all people abusing these drugs are prescribed them by doctors, the over-prescription of the drugs put them in circulation to further exacerbate the problem.
Dr. Friedman calls for the public and physicians to be aware that “there is strong evidence that nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), like Motrin, and…Tylenol are actually safer and more effective for many painful conditions than opioid painkillers.” He also calls for a “sea of change within the medical profession itself” to attack this epidemic. He wants medical students, residents, and all medical professional organizations to be educated about the risks (i.e. addiction, depression, anxiety) of prescribing opioid painkillers and compare that to the limited benefits.
If you believe you or someone you know has been the victim of medical negligence regarding the over-prescription of opioid painkillers, please contact us and see if we can be of assistance to you.