PITTS: America’s pain and opioid problem

Millions risk overdose death as they seek relief from suffering

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Former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau once said, “There’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.” What’s the appropriate place for the state in our nation’s pharmacies and medicine chests — particularly regarding for opioid pain medications?

Earlier this month, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) took a big step in making sure that the number of opioid drug-related deaths doesn’t continue spiraling out of control by approving a drug called Evzio. A take-home, one-time-use autoinjector, Evzio is the first drug of its kind. It releases a narcotic antagonist called naloxone to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose until emergency medical help arrives.

Fast-tracking drugs like Evzio, which will help dramatically reduce the number of opioid-overdose deaths, is just one part of a complex solution. Improved provider and patient education is crucial. Caregivers need to know how to properly prescribe based on an individual’s pain-management needs, and patients need to know how to properly follow their treatment plans. If not, addiction will continue consuming lives.

Opioids work by targeting the same receptors in the brain as heroin, resulting in feelings of euphoria. The numbers speak for themselves: People are hooked.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 5.1 million people reported abusing prescription painkillers. Teenagers account for a large share of the rising prevalence of opioid abuse — they report abuse or dependence problems at six times the rate of folks 50 and older. Eight percent of high school seniors report using Vicodin nonmedically. Curtailing the frequency of opioid-related abuse — and at an early age — must remain a priority.

It’s not just a user problem. It’s a provider problem, too.

In the United States, the use of opioids as first-line treatment for chronic pain conditions doesn’t follow either label indications or guideline recommendations. Fifty-two percent of patients diagnosed with osteoarthritis receive an opioid pain medicine as first-line treatment, as do 43 percent of patients diagnosed with fibromyalgia and 42 percent of patients with diabetic peripheral neuropathy. Payers often implement barriers to the use of branded, on-label non-opioid pain medicines, relegating these treatments to second-line options. The result is a gateway to abuse and addiction.

How do we fight the twin dangers of opioid misuse and addiction?

In her statement on opioid abuse last month, FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg explained that the FDA will continue to work collaboratively with “state and local governments, public health experts, health care professionals, addiction experts, researchers, industry and patient organizations” to help reduce the risks of opioid misuse, abuse, addiction and overdose.

The first step is providing physicians with extensive clinical guidelines and educational opportunities for prescribing opioids. For example, continuing medical education classes are offered by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to make sure that physicians are up to date on the importance of creating individualized patient treatment plans.

Last year, the FDA announced labeling changes and post-market study requirements for opioids in an attempt to begin more accurately prescribing and treating patients requiring opioid pain medications. Labeling changes mark one important step in highlighting the value of physician-to-patient communication and individualized patient pain-management programs.

In addition to providing patients with materials on proper use of opioid medications, patients should also be educated about proper drug disposal. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that painkillers used for nonmedical reasons were obtained from friends or family members 70 percent of the time.

Prescription-drug monitoring programs offer another solution. The programs are state databases that make sure patients are filling prescriptions belonging only to them, are taking the right dosages, and are not receiving prescriptions from multiple physicians.

Continued research into drugs that can reverse the symptoms of opioid overdose and ensuring patients have access to naloxone agents such as Evzio will also reduce the occurrence of overdose-related deaths. Mitigating the occurrence of opioid overdose could also save our health care system upward of $70 billion per year.

The FDA took a big step this month in approving a take-home drug that temporarily reverses the effects of opioid overdose. However, the battle over misuse, addiction and overdose is far from over. Health care providers and policymakers need to continue working toward a solution — or the line between the orange bottle in the medicine cabinet and the syringe in a back alley will become increasingly blurred.

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