Looking Beyond Opioids for Pain Management
Considering today’s ongoing epidemic, it’s difficult to envision a time when medical professionals prescribed opioids with little to no fear of their patients developing an addiction. Opioids are prescribed now more than ever for pain management and experts have confirmed a nationwide opioid crisis with over two million Americans considered to be dependent on narcotics today.
In response to the alarming statistics, professionals are beginning to research and recommend alternative solutions in place of these medications. Patients are now at the forefront of concern as it can be incredibly frustrating to learn that their medication could introduce an entirely new obstacle in their road to recovery. Research has shown that patients can become addicted as little as five days into their prescription, which is why it’s so important to raise awareness on how they can better cope with chronic pain.
The term opioid comprises a large class of drugs ranging from prescription pills like hydrocodone and oxycodone to illegal substances such as fentanyl and heroin. This fact alone should signal a red flag to patients, as their daily medication may be classified along with highly addictive street drugs.
The initial effects of opioids wear down over time, which is why patients often end up requiring increased doses. A patient’s heightened tolerance often leads to addiction, which can not only worsen their condition but also alter personality and mental state. Pharmaceutical companies also continue profiting off of this market despite the countless testimonies of doctors, patients and loved ones affected by opioid addiction.
Regardless of their addictive nature, opioids have proven to help patients live with and manage chronic pain. Knowing the facts, doctors are faced with an ethical dilemma surrounding opioids. When patients come to them with pain in search of a solution, doctors must decide whether or not to prescribe pain-relieving medication, and to what extent. Given the potential consequences, many feel opioids should only be available to patients experiencing severe pain, which is often the case for patients suffering from advanced stages of cancer.
The Impact on Cancer Patients
Nearly 80% of patients diagnosed with a late-stage form of cancer will experience chronic pain above all other side effects. Unfortunately, this makes patients suffering from terminal illnesses such as mesothelioma or small cell lung cancer highly susceptible to the addictive tendencies that come with taking these prescriptions.
Research from the University of Michigan found that 15 to 21 percent of cancer patients treated with chemotherapy continue to take high doses of opioids long after the recommended limit. This single study shows how cancer patients are amongst the most vulnerable to develop an opioid addiction, especially those experiencing adverse health effects from chemotherapy, radiation, surgery or targeted therapies.
The risk of addiction is widely recognized by both doctors and researchers. Jay S. Lee, M.D., a research fellow the the University of Michigan, stated, “We’re trying to help these patients. We’ve performed this operation to cure them of their cancer. But we’ve left 1 in 10 as chronic opioid users. That’s a tremendous burden to leave with cancer survivors.”
Addiction-Free Pain Management
Without opioids, it can seem like there are very little options available to effectively manage and treat chronic pain. Fortunately for patients, researchers are looking into the effects of medical marijuana and some results suggest this natural route of treatment may be just as impactful.
Researchers have found that when cannabis is used alongside opioid pain medication, it has the ability to reduce negative side effects as well as amplify pain relief, thus enabling doctors to administer opioids at lower and safer doses. Dr. Mark Wallace from the University of California at San Diego spoke on behalf of the benefits stating, “I see patients every week wanting off opioids. It’s a drug that will grab a hold of a patient and will not want to let them go. Their life revolves around their next dose. That behavior changes when I put them on cannabis.”
Although much more research is needed before marijuana is considered a viable replacement for opioids, cannabis seems to be much less addictive in the long-run. On top of the ability to wean patients off of prescription medication, medical marijuana is being considered for cancer treatment in itself. Just last year, The International Journal of Oncology found that cannabinoids have the ability to kill cancer cells, especially when combined with chemotherapy. Our hope is to inspire those battling chronic pain to look into alternative solutions such as medical marijuana in order to better cope with their pain and protect their future well-being.