“And I know that you were younger once, ‘cause you sure are older now.” – Singer-songwriter Phil Ochs (1940-76)
I sang along with my Ochs vinyl album the other day as I pedaled on my exercise bike, musing at the irony that I am today one of those who “sure are older now.”
Phil Ochs committed suicide in 1976 after years of battling severe depression. And while current medications have helped me surmount the illness that claimed Ochs’ life, a stigma still applies to depression survivors, especially those of us who are “dependent” on pharmaceutical remedies.
A similar stigma applies to chronic pain and its commonly prescribed remedy, opioid pain relievers.
According to the Washington Post, 20 percent of American adults – 50.2 million people – live with chronic pain. Researchers attribute roughly $80 billion a year in wages lost because of chronic pain.
How unfortunate to measure the toll of chronic pain in dollars rather than in the quality of human life.
But then, safe, effective pain management is not a priority in our health-care system.
Pain can’t be measured. It doesn’t show up on an X-ray.
The cause is difficult to pin down in objective terms, and skeptical health insurers are reluctant to approve many procedures and medications that promise pain relief.
Thanks to severe spinal stenosis, I’m not as active and fit as I’ve always prided myself on being. Chronic pain can do that to you.
Fifty million Americans.
And we all avoid talking – or worse, complaining – about chronic pain. God forbid we should become one of those “whiners” who spend their later years absorbed in doctors’ appointments, medications, surgeries. All the while being less active. Less alive.
Starting in the late 1990s, health care has seen a backlash against opioid pain medications – and not without reason. From 1999 to 2019, nearly 247,000 people died in the U.S. from overdoses involving prescription opioids.
“Medication-seeking behavior” in emergency rooms and “doctor shopping” to find a willing prescriber of opioid pain remedies became common.
Now opioid prescriptions are often rationed due to legislative and medical-practice guidelines. Physicians are forced to police their patients.
I had to sign a non-abuse contract for my prescription pain reliever. Guilty until proven innocent.
Yet, among 38 states with prescription opioid overdose death data, 17 of those saw a decline in 2017-18, and none experienced a significant increase. There was a more than 19 percent drop in annual prescribing rates from 2006 to 2017.
Chronic pain, like depression, is not a character flaw. It is “a thief of time,” to borrow a phrase from the late New Mexico author Tony Hillerman.
We the 50 million-plus – and our friends and families – need to raise our voices and call for safe and freely accessible pain treatment. Neither opioids nor rationing opioids offers a solution.
Surgery, even in skilled hands, often has unpredictable outcomes.
Meanwhile, chronic pain steals time. And time is life.
(Cheryl Everett is a Rio Rancho resident and former city councilor.)