Opiates have become an increasingly common treatment for back pain as well as for other chronic pain conditions. However, there are potentially harmful effects of these drugs. Primarily the risks of addiction and overdose make them a risky treatment option for many patients. Even the American Academy of Neurology (AAN) has publicly stated that opiates do very little to improve the day-to-day life of chronic pain sufferers. Now, they are urging physicians to seek alternative pain treatment methods that genuinely contribute to the overall health of their patients without placing them in undue harm.
A Double-Edged Sword
The AAN agrees that opiates have some pain-relieving properties. However, it argues that the potentially dangerous compilations of the drugs make them unsuitable for most pain sufferers. Specifically, the organization cites the high risk of addiction and accidental overdose as reasons that physicians should seek alternative medications and therapies. The pain-relieving properties of opiates are beneficial, but the AAN argues that opiates don’t improve a patient’s health. The AAN’s statement is significant because they are the first major American specialty society to state that the risks associated with opiate use may not be worth the benefits that the drugs provide.
One Step Forward, Two Steps Back
In the 1940s, opioid-based opium and heroin were rising in popularity among drug abusers and those seeking relief from pain. In an attempt to stop the improper use of these drugs, the government instituted strict standards on the types of physicians who could prescribe them and the amount that they could prescribe. While these more stringent standards did curb the abuse of these opioids, it also meant that many patients, especially those who have cancer, were left without adequate pain treatment options. That is why pharmaceutical companies and lobby groups began to fight to remove the rigorous controls over opiates. They argued that they wanted to restore adequate pain management to patients who truly needed it. Unfortunately, these revised state laws were far too lenient. Thus, they set the stage for today’s rampant over-prescription and abuse of opiates and opioids.
Initially, doctors prescribed these drugs to treat patients with cancer. However, usage quickly expanded to include those who had chronic pain such as lower back pain, headaches, and fibromyalgia. The problem is that there are no studies that prove that taking opiates for months or years is adequate. Most of the studies on this topic lasted for only a month.
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Regulatory Changes Are Necessary
Since the 1990s, over 100,000 people have died from opioid overdoses. In addition, prolonged use of opioids has been linked to deteriorating health, including changing hormone levels that can contribute to infertility, abnormal function of the immune system, heart problems, and in some cases, even worsening of pain.
Stricter state and federal guidelines are necessary to stop the rise of overdose deaths and other harmful health effects. While opiates may be appropriate for patients with cancer and terminal illnesses, other patients should seek alternative treatment options. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and several states have started this increased regulatory process by instituting a yellow flag warning system. This system requires physicians to get a second opinion before prescribing additional opiates to patients already at a certain dosage level. The ANN urges patients and physicians not to use pills as a first treatment method. Instead they should seek alternative pain treatments that are often just as effective as opiates.