In 1986, Dr. Hershel Jick wrote a single paragraph letter to the editor of the New England Journal of Medicine. In it, he wrote that less than 1% of opioid users would become physically dependent or addicted. His statistic wasn’t wrong, it was merely misrepresented; Dr. Jick was referring to patients who were carefully monitored after being prescribed opioids in a hospital for a short time.

Dr. Russell Portenoy quoted that 1% statistic in a study of 38 patients the same year. He believed that prescription opioids could be used to control chronic pain for years without concern about addiction, and he believed that based on faulty evidence. However, the challenge to conventional wisdom got doctors to try prescription opioids for chronic pain management. The results were so good that doctors continue to prescribe opioids for long-term use today.

The consequences of bad information

Unfortunately, Dr. Portenoy (who has since recanted his findings and apologized) started a trend that has left our country in a very dark place. A CNN Health report said of prescription opioid overdose:

“It is an awful sight, and yet someone in this country dies like this every 19 minutes. There is no other medication routinely used for a nonfatal condition that kills patients so frequently. The majority of those deaths result from prescription opioid medications, such as hydrocodone, OxyContin and Percocet. It is so common that specialists even have a profile for the most typical victim: non-Hispanic Caucasian male, mid 30s. Initial diagnosis: back pain due to trauma, surgery or degenerative arthritis. And, most remarkably, average time from first prescription to time of overdose death: just 31 months.”

The Los Angeles Times recently detailed an in-depth investigation into Oxycontin. For years, Purdue Pharma has claimed that one dose kills pain for 12 hours, meaning that chronic pain could be managed with just two pills a day. In reality, the drug wears off much more quickly, prompting a “chase the dragon” scenario where users take more pills more frequently.

In the course of the investigation, the LA Times interviewed Elizabeth Kipp. Kipp began an Oxycontin regimen in 1996 after years of dealing with debilitating back pain. She followed her dosing instructions rigidly, waiting to take another dose even though she was often in excruciating pain and experiencing the first symptoms of withdrawal. From the article, “For a year and a half, she spent each day cycling through misery and relief. Sometimes, she said, she contemplated suicide.

‘You want a description of hell,’ Kipp recalled. ‘I can give it to you.’”

Somebody has to lead change, and it probably won’t be the FDA

Eventually, Kipp checked herself into rehab and quit taking painkillers; she is one of the few. Some doctors believe that change is on the horizon, but one inescapable fact remains; chronic pain management with opioids is cheaper for insurance companies and better for drug manufacturers. Significant change will take time and effort, and the resistance will be steep.

Opioid addiction is a serious problem. If your loved one is suffering, there is no substitute for professional medical and psychological help. However, rehabilitation services and mental health professionals can be extremely expensive. If your loved one became addicted after being prescribed opioids, you may be entitled to compensation for treatment. The experienced Tennessee medical malpractice attorneys at Rocky McElhaney Law Firm can evaluate your case and help get you the compensation you deserve. Call 615.246.5549 or contact us today for a free consultation at our Nashville, Gallatin or Knoxville office location.