Are Doctors Prescribing Too Many Pain Medications?

In October, I was asked to speak at a Mayday Foundation meeting about blogging and using social media to spread a message. The Mayday Foundation is a global organization dedicated to pain relief.

At the meeting I met Bob Twillman, a 2011-2012 Mayday Fellow, who also is the Director of Policy and Advocacy at the American Academy of Pain Management. After the meeting he wrote a blog post for’s Congress Blog focusing on what he describes as “the much-ballyhooed issuance of three papers (including one Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report) from CDC last week on the issue of overdoses and deaths involving prescription opiods. ”

Twillman’s essay reminds us that limiting access to pain medications is not the way to limit overuse. As regular HealthBeat readers know, I am concerned about overtreatment. But most patients who overdose get their pain medications from someone else’s medicine cabinet—not from a prescription that a doctor wrote for them. Physicians should be able to prescribe these drugs for the many patients who truly need them.


A Call to Stop the “Epidemic” of Opioid Pain Medicine Overdoses

By Bob Twillman

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report about “the epidemic” of overdoses involving prescription opioid pain medicines (strong pain medicines like morphine, including oxycodone, hydrocodone, and others).  The report blames rampant overprescribing by doctors and other professionals for the sharp uptick in deaths related to opioid abuse, leading the CDC to propose various solutions aimed primarily at reducing the supply of these medications.  In reality, if Americans want to know where these misused medications are coming from, they need to look in the mirror – or more accurately the medicine cabinet behind the mirror.

In its report, CDC states that that 14,800 people died of overdoses in which prescription opioid pain medicines were present, an increase from about 4000 such cases in 1999.  The CDC then argues that because this increase in deaths occurred while sales of these drugs increased, one caused the other.  This is an easy conclusion to leap to – and one that the CDC has focused on in the past – but it doesn’t make that conclusion right.  And what’s even more dangerous is proposing new policy based on unproven conclusions.

This is not to say that there is no relationship – the report does not prove or disprove one – but it certainly means we must question their proposed solution.  The CDC’s almost exclusive focus on reducing the number of prescriptions for these medicines overlooks the legitimate use of these medications.  A recent Institute of Medicine report found that 116 million adults, roughly one in three people, live with chronic pain.  This is pain that persists long after an injury that caused it has healed, or that is related to another chronic condition like arthritis.  Some people I’ve treated face chronic pain that is so debilitating that they can no longer work.  This unrelenting chronic pain robs people of their lives to a point where suicide can sometimes seem like the only way out.

Opioid pain medications, along with a range of other treatments, allow many of these people to get out of bed in the morning and perform day-to-day tasks that we all take for granted.  Quite simply, they can give people their lives back.  Cutting back the supply of these medications and assuming that will cut back the misuse is misguided and hurts these people with chronic pain.  Considering there are 10 times as many people who suffer from chronic pain as those who misuse these medications, we have to think about whom this action would impact the most.  We need to find ways to keep these vital medicines out of the hands of those who misuse them, without preventing people they help from being able to use them properly.

The answer lies in another finding from government surveys, which CDC did not mention.  In five out of six cases, people misusing opioid pain medications said they obtained the medication from sources other than doctors.  In the majority of these situations, the medications were given or sold to the person misusing them by a friend or family member.  Previous research found that 60% of most people who died of overdoses involving these medications did not have prescriptions for them.

If we want people to stop dying from overdoses, the most effective solution is to prevent people from getting opioid pain medications from friends and relatives – not stopping doctors from using these medications for legitimate pain relief.  We already have laws on the books to stop this behavior (giving or selling opioids without a prescription is a felony, and a death as a result could be involuntary manslaughter), we’re just not enforcing them as we should.  In 2008 alone, there could have been nearly 10,000 such cases of involuntary manslaughter in the United States. How many of them were prosecuted?

If we want to stem the tide of prescription opioid abuse and resulting deaths, we need to focus on the real sources of these misused medicines.  They’re coming from medicine cabinets, not doctors or pharmacies.  Limiting prescriptions and withholding opioids from people who depend on these medications to alleviate their daily pain is a drastic across-the-board solution that will cheat many innocent people out of a good quality of life, while ignoring the real sources of abused medicines.  That’s just wrong.

2 thoughts on “Are Doctors Prescribing Too Many Pain Medications?

  1. “If we want people to stop dying from overdoses,…” we need to either 1) work a lot harder on being able to eliminate the causes of chronic pain, or 2)really educate the CDC on the reality of chronic pain. Withholding the medications via more and more draconian laws is the worst option.
    The OD’d appear to be a poor-man’s assisted suicide. Family or friends see the terrible pain the loved one is in and provide the only available option to them.
    By further withholding pain medicine from the masses, it looks like the CDC will exacerbate the OD problem. Not to mention really put a crimp into practicing palliative/hospice care (which is all about pain management until the end.)
    Of course, one could be paranoid and think this is part of a conspiracy to push a federal level assisted suicide / euthanasia law so as to kill off as many baby boomers as quickly as possible to salvage the federal budget……

  2. As a person whose spouse in on disability because of Chronic pain, I would like to point out out that no wants to be on pain medications. A person on pain meds has little or no credibility with many doctors and staff. Pain Doctors require you to visit them monthly, there are no 3 months supply of meds, you are drug-tested and must submit a list of all meds to the Doctor. It’s not fun, and if you do go into the er, you will get looked at like an addict and treated second class.