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People Prescribed Opioids Are Not Automatically 'Junkies'

We are the ones suffering the most from people making light of our struggles. We are the ones being treated like addicts while our bodies attack us. We are the ones suffering. Would you say that someone living with cancer was drug seeking and looking for opiates to get high, not for pain relief? Why would that be okay to someone living with chronic pain?
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Doctor examining a patients heart beat with a stethoscope
Doctor examining a patients heart beat with a stethoscope

To say that I am upset about the response to one of the Superbowl ads is an understatement. You probably saw it and side eyed it because we can all agree that no one wants to see Superbowl advertisements for medications used for stomach and digestive problems. I'm with you on that one. I'm talking about the black-and-white ad for people with OIC, opioid induced constipation. The problem was how people responded to that ad. For example, Bill Maher tweeted, "Was that really an ad for junkies who can't shit? America, I luv ya but I just can't keep up".

I get that this was supposed to be funny. And I'll agree that it is definitely ironic that politicians keep talking about the opioid epidemic while the FDC approves a drug for OIC. But here's the thing - there is a difference between people who are prescribed opioids and people who are junkies. There is a difference between people who are on opioids for very real health issues and addicts. (And his treatment of addicts here is a whole other issue, one that should be addressed, but this is not the time.)

It's time to talk about how people prescribed opioids for chronic pain are not automatically junkies.

The only thing I'm addicted to is coffee. Let's start with that. I am not addicted to my pain medication. When I am in less pain overall -- as in my when main treatment for my autoimmune arthritis has kicked in -- I don't take as much. The only thing I need from my opiate is pain relief, and if I can get that from other things, I don't take it. What things? In addition to my pain medication, I use ice, a heating pad, an NSAID like Advil, yoga, chiropractic care, higher steroid dose, etc. I do everything I possibly can to reduce my pain, and just because that can involve an opiate does not mean that I am an addict.

And another thing - I don't want to take my pain medication, but it is without a doubt the only reason why I haven't been to the ER since May 2014. Also, I really don't enjoy spending my time rolling on the floor sobbing from pain. And I have a rather high pain tolerance; I keep burning my fingers in my toaster due to short bread problems and that's a 3/10 for me. My pain tolerance is high and I'm still in excruciating pain on a regular basis because, you know, I live with a highly active autoimmune disease attacking my body. I don't want to take my pain medication, but it's so much better than the alternative.

My opiates are not my main pain-management treatment. Not by a long shot. I'm switching to Stelara injections from Rituxan infusions, and I also take the maximum amount of NSAID (anti-inflammatory) you can in a day. Actually, I take 3 medications daily for my arthritis pain, 3 daily for my fibromyalgia pain, plus 1 weekly for my arthritis. On top of that, I do yoga and walk every day, I use a heating pad for my fibromyalgia as needed, I see a chiropractor every week, and I do physical therapy exercises from my knee surgery every day. Oh, and I've also changed my diet. So my pain medication is NOT my primary source of pain relief, but it is the one thing I can take that immediately makes a large difference in my pain. And you want to shame me for that, for something I can't control when I'm trying my best to feel better?

Let's look at some statistics in case my personal experience is not enough for you. A study in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that 78% of people addicted to opiates were not prescribed the drug for any medical reason. A study by the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids found that 9 in 10 chronic pain patients tried a non-opiate based treatment before relying on opiates. Oh, and my favorite statistic? 96 percent of chronic pain patients on opioids do not become addicted. That's right. Ninety-six percent.

Here's the issue at the heart of the misunderstanding: 100 million Americans are affected by chronic pain, more than those with heart disease, cancer, and diabetes combined. We are the ones suffering the most from people making light of our struggles. We are the ones being treated like addicts while our bodies attack us. We are the ones suffering. Would you say that someone living with cancer was drug seeking and looking for opiates to get high, not for pain relief? Why would that be okay to someone living with chronic pain?

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