How the Opioid Crisis Fuels Damaging Stigmas About Chronic Pain Patients

I want to preface this by saying I do not take opiates. My husband takes them for chronic pain stemming from a debilitating injury to his spine. He cannot take NSAIDs due to having had stomach surgery and has no other options. He has done appropriate therapies and manages his opiate use well. He is not addicted. I have nothing for daily pain management because I cannot take NSAIDs or steroids due to stomach erosion caused by NSAIDs. I explicitly do not want opiate pain medication and do not take it.

Pain is something everyone in the world is familiar with. We have all stubbed our toe or bitten our tongue or banged our shins on something or another. Most people know pain as transient – it comes, it goes. It doesn’t stay forever, even if it does stay for longer than we’d like.

With that in mind, people with chronic pain face an uphill battle. With the war on opiates creating a hostile environment for pain patients, it is becoming harder and harder to be treated as a person who is in pain rather than viewed as a person who has a drug addiction. I face this stigma when dealing with doctors, pharmacists, strangers and even some friends. The number of times I have been treated as suspect because of pain is higher than I want to think about for too long.

I sympathize with doctors who are under extreme pressure to avoid opiate prescriptions and who have encountered people with addictions just looking for a fix. I sympathize with people who have others in their lives who may be wrestling with addiction to pain pills or other sources. However, they need to stop projecting those experiences onto pain patients. Pain clinic physicians whose first words are, “I’m not giving you opiates,” should rethink that a little. It’s fine to not provide opiates if there are other means – I am 100 percent for that – but you shouldn’t lead the conversation with the assumption that the other person is addicted.

Those of us with invisible illnesses like Ehlers-Danlos syndrome shouldn’t have to defend ourselves against people seeing to make us out to be the bad guys. Pain is a daily part of our lives, and sometimes that pain is horrible. Using that awful “pain scale” we see everywhere, my best days are a four while my worst days have topped out at nine and 10. Let me reiterate that I have nothing to control my pain. The pharmacy on my nightstand is mostly antacids and migraine medication along with a muscle relaxer for the days I have severe spasms.

My husband’s opiate usage is limited to days when he could not get out of bed otherwise. He uses his painkillers when he has no other option and needs to function like a human being. And that’s what most chronic pain patients want. We know pain will be our companion forever. So many of us live our lives feeling like we’ve got the flu (and that’s on good days). We use our pain medication to keep us functional on the days when we’d otherwise be unable to function. It’s not asking too much to want to function.

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