I have a serious sweet tooth. Ask anyone who knows me. Hell, ask my dentist. You’ll really get the dirt then. I love cakes, cookies, chocolate, ice cream, donuts…the list goes on. As a child, one of my favorite days of the year was Christmas cookie baking day. Because I got to eat raw cookie dough. Then condensed milk. Also lots of frosting. I would be sick half way through the day but I still wanted more. I’m going to talk about something else now, but don’t forget the mental image of me with frosting all over my nauseated face. Unlike the writers of Lost, I will explain this randomness shortly.
I was playing the fish game on my phone while waiting to be called back for a doctor’s appointment when an older woman, carrying a cane instead of using it, sat down next to me. She told me she’d just had hip replacement surgery two weeks before and was already done using her cane. She seemed pretty proud of herself. I figured it was just her feeling good about how quickly she was healing. Well, until she opened her mouth again. “I’m not disabled or anything, don’t worry. I’m healthy and active,” she said. A ripple of irritation spread through my body. Before I could collect my thoughts, she continued by telling me how she only took three of her oxycodone pills after surgery. “Did you know that more people died of opioid overdose last year in the U.S. than in the entire Vietnam War?” she asked. I raised my eyebrows and agreed that it was a tragedy and that opioids can be dangerous. “I just didn’t want to be one of those people,” she said with an air of superiority. If I had thought quickly enough, I would have said, “maybe those people wouldn’t be so numerous if judgmental assholes like you didn’t pretend to care about this issue when in reality you just want to distance yourself from those you deem unworthy.” Instead I seethed internally while she was called back for her check-up. She had hit a nerve.
I decided to see if her information was accurate. According to the CDC, about 130 Americans die daily from opioid overdose. That comes out to about 47,450 Americans per year. The U.S. National Archives list the total death toll for U.S. troops in the Vietnam War at 58,220. Last time I checked, 58,220 is more than 47,450. I was about to shake my head and move on to happier topics when I spotted another statistic. Apparently, the amount of chronic pain patients that misuse their opioid prescriptions is between 21 and 29%. That’s all? Only ¼ of all chronic pain patients misuse their opioids? What about the other ¾ who just want some semblance of a normal life?
After several injuries I consider myself a chronic pain sufferer. I don’t personally use opioids for the type of pain I have, but I’ve met many people who need an opioid medication to have any quality of life. I’m not questioning the seriousness of addiction and overdose, but I think fear of it is creating another epidemic: pain. Imagine lying as still as possible because moving feels like a giant is grinding your bones to make his bread. You get dehydrated because you avoid drinking water because getting up to use the bathroom makes your back spasm uncontrollably. Maybe you don’t eat all day because standing in the kitchen long enough to remove a frozen burrito from the freezer, unwrap it, and microwave it for 2 minutes feels like the Night King is driving his white-walker making stick through your hip. Now imagine arranging your whole life around controlling that pain, from what kind of job you can have (if any at all) to how many episodes of Game of Thrones you can watch before the pain overwhelms your brain and you lose track of the plot. The fight for that iron throne gets pretty complicated, after all. Now imagine being able to take one pill, once or twice per day, and that pain goes from life altering to manageable. I bet that it feels good to have enough of a reprieve to actually go grocery shopping or have coffee with friends. So good, in fact, you might just beg for more relief…and get labeled a drug-seeker. All because ¼ of chronic pain sufferers abuse their pain medicine.
Remember my sweet tooth and lack of control as a child? Well my parents placed limits on sweets and taught me which types of foods I needed to be healthy. I had to eat my veggies and protein multiple times per day and dessert only once. Another juicy tidbit from the CDC: primary care providers prescribe nearly half of all opioids given to chronic pain patients, yet research shows a majority of these physicians feel they don’t have sufficient training in managing opioid prescriptions. Sounds like chronic pain patients don’t have parents to educate them and set appropriate limits. The system is set up to fail. While food is vital to survival, excessive sweets are not. Relief from daily, debilitating pain is just as essential to living. One could argue that an opioid dosage aimed at being a grilled chicken salad is beneficial, so long as the goal isn’t to get the pleasure of dessert with every serving. In order for this to be possible, people like hip-replacement lady would need to broaden their horizons beyond their own reflection and realize the pain patient isn’t to blame. Just some bitter food for thought. Maybe its horseradish. Gross.