For millions of chronic pain patients, the forgotten victims in the opioid debate


LAS VEGAS – Nightly newscasts across the country are filled with stories about the opioid epidemic — the opioid crisis. Tens of thousands of Americans who die each year are found with opioids in their systems, and so government at every level has stepped in to put limits on otherwise legal medications, including here in Nevada.

For millions of chronic pain patients, the crackdown has been a nightmare. They are the forgotten victims in the opioid debate.

Approximately 50,000 people a year die with opioids of one kind or another in their systems. The number you don’t hear is this one — there are as many as 25 million Americans who suffer with chronic pain. For many of them, opioid medication means the difference between leading somewhat normal lives, or surviving in constant agony.

These are not the people who O.D. on heroin or mix drugs with booze. For the most part, they suffer and die in silence.

“It was like, for the first time in my life, I wasn’t in pain anymore. I felt great for a couple of years and then they started this total crackdown,” said Gary, a chronic pain patient, who asked that his real name not be used.

Gary’s life changed when his spine was shattered in a rollover accident. After several operations, his doctors prescribed opioids and he was able to lead a somewhat normal life, even as the discs in his back crumbled further. But then the opioid crisis blew up. His prescriptions were cut in half and it became tougher to find a pharmacy that would fill them.

“I’d have to drive to 10 to 12 pharmacies just to get four prescriptions filled. Just to fill them,” he said.

Reporter George Knapp: “And they look at you like…”
Gary: “Yeah, like you’re a criminal.”

“The only ones who understand chronic pain are the ones who have chronic pain. When you have chronic pain, it’s on your mind all the time,” said Jeremy, a chronic pain patient, who asked that his real name not be used.

Jeremy is a self-employed business professional whose work requires him to both drive and walk daily. A skiing accident and later a hip replacement led to sharp, constant pain over half his body. He tried various surgeries, therapies, and medications but nothing worked until a time-released pain med called oxycontin was developed.

“You can go to work and function and chronic pain patients don’t get high off of oxycontin. It just alleviates their pain and allows them to function,” he said.

The opioid crisis has meant significant reductions in the amounts that can legally be prescribed for Jeremy, Gary, and pretty much every other chronic pain patient. Contrary to what their doctors recommend, their medications have been reduced by half, sometimes more. And they’ve been told, more reductions are likely.

For millions of people, the consequences have been immediate and drastic. They can’t sleep, can’t work, lose their jobs. Some decide to put an end to the constant pain by taking their own lives.

“People are dying. People are committing suicide right now because their doctor tapered them down involuntarily off opioid medications,” said Rick Martin.

He has seen it from both sides. He spent decades working as a pharmacist, and even though he has chronic pain from a deteriorating spine and hip, with medication, he continued to work and could also pursue his passion — landscape photography.

“I used to be able to do stuff by myself, but I can’t do that anymore.”

Chronic pain patients like Rick follow their doctor’s instructions, undergo monthly drug screenings and urinalysis and have become collateral damage in the opioid crisis. Most of the publicity has focused on overdose deaths among people who obtain opioids illegally, mix them with booze or other drugs including heroin. 

The CDC, DEA, and various opioid task forces have responded to deaths caused by illicit drugs by cutting back on legally prescribed medications, the same drugs that make life bearable for millions with chronic pain.

Insurance companies have slashed coverage, and pharmacies now operate under strict quotas, to the point they won’t fill prescriptions for new patients, even those fresh out of surgery. Opioid prescriptions have actually declined significantly in each of the last three years, yet opioid deaths keep rising.

“The unintended victims are the senior citizens. If they can’t get their medications, they aren’t going to go buy heroin and shoot it and die of a heroin overdose. they’re going to suffer,” Jeremy said.

So, how do we explain that while legal prescriptions keep dropping, opioid deaths keep rising? It isn’t a simple issue, though politicians have seized on it as a winner. Cracking down on drugs is a tried and true political strategy, even though enforcement has never worked as a solution to drug abuse.

In the coming months, 8 News NOW will be looking beyond the obvious rhetoric about various opioid issues. As part of this project, we’d like your input. We’ve created a page where opioid patients, pain doctors, pharmacists, families of O.D. victims can share stories, either publicly or privately.

6 Responses

  1. I’ve been in constant pain for many years for a myriad of problems and opioids have been the only thing that’s allowed me to have a functional life but now the government is in the patient dr business and that’s is so wrong. The dr have had to cut back on our medications to appease the government. I have jumped through hoops to do what the government wants. They’re constantly coming up with new regulations and it’s not right. I have panic disorder and afib. I’m now not allowed to take Xanax that would help with a panic attack so now when my heart is beating a mile a minute I don’t know if it’s an panic attack or my afib. I use to be able to take a Xanax and it would calm me. They even have had to drop my sleep medicine. It is so wrong and if the government can do this what else will they start doing to the rest of the country.

  2. It is GENOCIDE going on in the USA in 2017!!!

  3. I am also a chronic pain patient. My doctor has been treating me since 1997. I have been living the life that any chronic pain patient lives. No planning because you never know whether you’ll be up for shopping or visiting or getting out of bed. The effort of bathing, washing my hair and putting in my teeth can wear me out. [I lost my teeth from so many years of dry mouth and it finally became cheaper to have the last 17 teeth out and I got some new ones.] But I was mostly pain free. I would get nerve blocks and Botox to add to my treatment. Now I am in pain. Why am I being made to suffer from chronic pain? The people I meet at my doctor’s office are all like me. They aren’t drug addicts. They are in pain. When did politicians get medical licenses? I want my doctor to prescribe my medications – not a professor or a mayor or a premier.

  4. For the first time ever and this was not suppose to start until January 1 st according to the letter from my insurance company,,This months prescription for my pain meds needed one in order to get my Pain meds filled,and according to the pharmacy could take up to a month to get it done,,so I had to pay 700.00 just for one of My meds,,now the fight begins with insurance to prayerfully get my money refunded,,Follow the money and you will see just how powerful of a hold they have over us all,,not everyone has this kinda money and will be left to suffer in more agony!!not just of the body!!but the mind and Spirit as well!! They are truly trying to kill us all ,,they are more than terrorists,,it’s inhumane and Barbaric to treat anyone like this,,Genocide in America today by our own Government

  5. Excellent piece,jmo,,for it shows the true reality,,,Again,,I never saw my MEDICINE as some terrible drug..I truly thought we as a society were past all that archaic inhumane prejudice,,,,I WAS WRONG,,, this innocent man is only asking for a MEDICINE,, that works for him,,to function somewhat normally,,verses,,a bed for life,,in agony for life,,How someone made his needs as a medically ill human being not normal,,is truly beyond my thought process’s.The man just wants to be in less physical pain,from a medical illness,,THATS NORMAL behavior…
    What is abnormal,WRONG ,klonodynation,,,who is preachen to the world,it is abnormal to have/want access to effective medical care to lessen physical pain..What is WRONG,is klonodyns thought process of,,”let’em suffer in physical pain,”..For he’s inability to see human suffering,inability to see the reality he has created,,,which is,,torture/genocide of the medically literally tortureing people to death,Those who don’t die right away,,,he preaches,” lock up the cripples like we did in the 1880’s,”,,The ole Pennhurst style of psychiatrics care of Medieval MEDICAL methods.,,THATS WRONG,,,klonodyn idealogy is WRONG!,AND DOCTORS ,REAL DOCTORS,M.D’S ,,NEED TO START SAYING THAT,,klonodyn ur ideaology’s are wrong..For again fact/truth is no-one has everstopped physical pain w/a thought,,,,ever!!.To experiment w/humans again like he is doing,,is cruel and unusual practices,,and why it/he should be outlawed,,,for it truly is,,torture and genocide of the medically ill.,,,maryw

  6. Makes me sooooo sad. Was on norco over five years for chronic terrible pain and my pharmacy got new employees and decided to stop giving me my legally prescribed meds. I had to be put on suboxone and was never so sick in my life. Still battling it, it’s still an opioid yet no one cares. Disgusting.

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