After a couple of decades of strong proponents and persistent messaging on the benefits of opioids, the tide of public opinion and the opinion of health experts seems to be turning against the widespread use of opioids for chronic pain.
Among people with chronic pain who use opioids, this change in perspective on the use of opioids can be alarming. For about two decades, people with chronic pain have been encouraged to take opioid medications. Many have subsequently come to rely on them. Some may have even come to believe that it is impossible to manage chronic pain well without the use of opioid medications.
We now face a dilemma in the management of chronic pain. We have strong proponents for the use of opioids and strong proponents against the use opioids. Both sides have valid concerns that lead to their respective positions.
Often, the sides in this dilemma seem to get expressed in untenable ways. It’s as if the stakeholders in the field have to choose between two bad options: either you take opioids on a chronic basis and expose yourself to the risks of addiction and accidental overdose, which are actually occurring to people with chronic pain at epidemic proportions; or don’t take opioids, remain safe from addiction and accidental death, but expose yourself to pain, which may be intolerable. Healthcare providers seem to face a corresponding dilemma: either manage patients on chronic opioids while exposing them to addiction and accidental overdose or refrain from opioid management and expose them to what might be intolerable pain. Whether patient or provider, both options seem bad.
Is there a third option?
There is another way, of course. It’s called chronic pain rehabilitation and it effectively shows people how to successfully self-manage chronic pain without the use of opioid medications. Chronic pain rehabilitation clinics have been around for three to four decades. However, it’s hard to get people to go to them. It’s not because they are ineffective. Research over the last four decades shows clearly that they are effective (Gatchel & Okifuji, 2006; Kamper, et al., 2015).
Managing pain without opioids
People who’ve been managing their pain with opioids are often a little leery of recommendations to go to a chronic pain rehabilitation clinic. The recommendations seem to run counter to much of what’s been previously recommended throughout the long course of care for their chronic condition. After years of recommendation and encouragement to take opioids by some providers, it’s hard to understand why other providers might recommend and encourage the exact opposite. Maybe they are recommending learning to self-manage pain without the use of opioids because:
- They don’t believe my pain is as bad as it is.
- They think (wrongly) that I’m addicted to opioid medications.
- They think my pain is all in my head.
- They just want to make money off their program that they are recommending.
- They are ignorant of what’s most effective for chronic pain (i.e., they don’t know what they’re talking about).
- They are not as compassionate as the previous providers who recommended opioid management.
In all these concerns, people become leery of a recommendation to forego opioids because it’s hard to believe that the recommendation is being made in the best interest of the patient. It seems that relief of pain through the use of opioids is what’s best for the patient and anything that runs counter to that recommendation must be in the best interests of someone else.
Moreover, it’s a sensitive topic. Let’s face it, no one feels especially proud of managing their chronic pain with opioids. Rather, people with chronic pain do it because it seems a necessity – they believe that the pain will be intolerable without opioids. The recommendation and encouragement to take opioids by healthcare providers and by society, more generally, is helpful in this regard. Such encouragement supports the decision to use opioids, one in which there’s always been some ambivalence. Again, no one is exactly proud of taking opioids for chronic pain; upon reflection, there is always some degree of doubt or concern about their use that leads to a sense of vulnerability and sensitivity. It’s helpful to have others, especially healthcare providers, recommend and encourage their use.
When, however, other healthcare providers recommend against opioid use and encourage learning to self-manage pain instead, it can sting because it taps right into the inherent sense of vulnerability and sensitivity that occur when taking opioids.
It’s hard to see a healthcare provider as acting in the best interest of patients when they openly question the issue that can be so sensitive. The recommendation to learn to self-manage pain without the use of opioids shines a direct light onto the inherent sense of vulnerability or shame that so many feel when using opioids for the management of chronic pain.
The recommendation inadvertently breaks all the tacit rules that healthcare providers (and pharmaceutical companies) have heretofore been following. The rule up until now has been to reassure patients that it’s okay to take opioids for chronic pain. Over the last two decades, the field has asked patients to trust these assurances that they shouldn’t be ashamed of their need for opioid medications. Now, the field is changing and has begun to question the need for opioids. In so doing, we break the trust of patients who have been on opioids for some time: we expose them to potential pain, but also the shame that heretofore we alleviated with assurances that taking opioids is okay. It’s no wonder that patients are now upset.
In a microcosm, it’s this dynamic that occurs in the offices of chronic pain rehabilitation clinics everyday when, after the initial evaluation and recommendation to participate in the therapies of the clinic occurs, patients leave and refrain from accepting the recommendation to learn to self-manage pain. Such patients are doubtful that it will work and are afraid of the pain that would ensue if it doesn’t. Moreover, though, they tend to leave feeling somewhat ashamed that the provider so openly talked about the fact that they could learn to self-manage pain without the use of opioids. Providers are supposed to provide reassurance that it’s okay to be on opioids, not question their use.
Even when it’s well-informed and done in the best interest of the patient, the recommendation and encouragement to learn to self-manage pain without the use of opioids can be heard as a subtle yet stinging rebuke because of the inherent sensitivity that occurs when taking opioids for chronic pain.
How, then, do we bridge this divide?
The Institute for Chronic Pain has a new content page that may play a small role in such bridge building. When patients come to chronic pain rehabilitation clinics for the first time, they may have never had an experience of a provider talk to them about self-managing pain without the use of opioids. As we’ve seen, it’s a complex and sensitive interaction that occurs under the surface of the words that are spoken. It can be a lot to take in. It can feel like the rules are being broken. As we’ve seen, it can be easy to become angry and accuse the provider of incompetence, ill-will or insensitivity. Oftentimes, people need a little time to reflect on the discussion and talk it over with their loved ones. No one comes lightly to the decision to taper opioids and learn to self-manage pain instead.
The new content page provides assistance with this reflection. The hope is that patients can use the information on the page to further reflect on if and when it may be time to begin learning to self-manage chronic pain. Providers can refer their patients to the page too, ask them to read it, and come back for further discussion.
For countless people over the last four decades, chronic pain rehabilitation has provided hope and a way to take back control of a life with chronic pain. However, it must be approached with sensitivity and compassion. Initially, the idea that one can successfully self-manage chronic pain without the use of opioid medications can be threatening, especially for those who have been managing pain with opioids for some time and for those whose providers have long provided reassurance that it's okay to take opioids. Nonetheless, if your providers have recently begun to express concerns about the long-term use of opioids or if you yourself have concerns about their long-term use, you might find it helpful to read the new ICP page on the common benefits of learning to self-manage pain without the use of opioid medications.
You can find the new page by clicking on the link here.
Gatchel, R. J., & Okifuji, A. (2006). Evidence-based scientific data documenting the treatment and cost-effectiveness of comprehensive pain programs for chronic non-malignant pain. Journal of Pain, 7, 779-793.
Kamper, S. J., Apeldorn, A. T., Chiarotto, A., Smeets, R. J., Ostelo, R. W., Guzman, J., & van Tulder, M. W. (2015). Multidisciplinary biopsychosocial rehabilitation for chronic low back pain: Cochrane systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ, 350. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.h444
Author: Murray J. McAllister, PsyD
Date of publication: 12-1-2016
Date of last modification: October 5, 2019
About the author: Dr. McAllister is the editor at the Institute for Chronic Pain (ICP). The ICP is an educational and public policy think tank. Our mission is to lead the field in making pain management more empirically supported. Additionally, the ICP provides scientifically accurate information on chronic pain that is approachable to patients and their families. Dr. McAllister is also the clinical director of pain services for Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute (CKRI), part of Allina Health, in Minneapolis, MN. Among other services, CKRI provides chronic pain rehabilitation services on a residential and outpatient basis.