Saturday, December 24, 2011
Little scares a new oncology patient as much as the idea of pain. Unfortunately, pain permeates my practice. Often, pain is the initial symptom that leads to a new cancer diagnosis. Cancer patients undergo frequent painful procedures -- biopsies, bone marrow aspirates, surgeries ... even a simple blood draw involves a small amount of pain. Because of this, managing pain is something I have some experience doing.
So I was surprised when I read this article in The Washington Post this morning and discovered that "some [pain doctors] began decrying the increasingly widespread use of opioids and questioned whether the drugs worked." Really? There are pain doctors who question whether opiates (morphine, for example) work?
Over the years, I have seen a variety of pain management styles. From doctors who prescribe intramuscular injections of pain medications to small children recovering from surgery, through sophisticated regimens involving patient-controlled analgesia and the use of non-drug techniques designed to specifically combat different types of pain. Pain management skills vary widely, and careful use of appropriate therapies can make all the difference to a suffering child.
Unfortunately, because the drugs which are the mainstay of pain treatment, opiates, are highly addictive, their use is politicized. The article in today's Washington Post, for example, was focused on a patient advocacy group, the American Pain Foundation, which gets the lion's share of its funding from the pharmaceutical industry. Unfortunately, this creates the appearance of a conflict of interest when the group strongly advocates for the use of specific narcotic pain medications (such as OxyContin) to control chronic pain. And the appearance of a conflict of interest, whether or not the conflict exists, is sufficient to cast doubt on everything the Foundation has to say, even when what they say is spot on.
The use of narcotic pain medications is clearly expanding, and as a result, overdoses are an increasingly common cause of death in this country. That doesn't mean these drugs should not be used. They are highly effective at controlling acute, and even chronic, pain. But like all medications, they need to be used appropriately, under medical supervision, prescribed by doctors who are experienced in their use, know how they work, know what kinds of pain they help, and know the risks and limitations of their use.
The diseases I treat cause pain. One of the most common fears among cancer patients is the fear of dying in pain. The treatments I use cause pain. Some of the procedures we perform to monitor the progress of my patients cause pain. Without highly effective drugs to treat pain, I could not do my job. Rather than politicizing these drugs, we should be advocating for increased education about their proper use, about choosing the right drug for the right type of pain, and increasing research into the mechanisms of pain so that newer, more effective, safer drugs can be developed.
What Rufus Can Teach Us About Pain
Narcotics for pain control: When is enough too much?