If you’ve ever found yourself in the unenviable position of pointing to a number on one of those pain scales with the cartoon faces, you know that’s not what pain looks like. You know pain looks like landscaping managers, public accountants and mail carriers gritting their teeth and doing exemplary work even when their body doesn’t want to let them.
You probably also know that we — the people of the world and in particular the nations that claim to lead it — need a brand-new approach to relieving human pain. Our existing solutions pack our prisons, sentence nonviolent offenders to life and exacerbate one of the worst and most avoidable tragedies in recent memory.
The State of the Opioid Crisis and What Comes Next
The current Secretary of Health and Human Services, Alex Azar, said in late 2018 that America appeared to be turning a corner on opioid deaths. He cited figures that do, indeed, point to a minor drop-off in opioid-related fatalities. There are reasons to be only cautiously optimistic — such as the small timeframe Azar’s data draws from — but it’s still encouraging to see such signs. The question is, what do we do next?
One of the reasons why opioid deaths may be in decline is that doctors are more reluctant today, with media and regulatory attention, to write prescriptions for opioid-based pain relievers in the numbers previously seen. It’s not debatable that opioids are habit-forming. It’s also well-known that when opioid-based pain relievers aren’t readily available, patients and abusers alike sometimes seek cheaper illicit alternatives that do the job nearly as well, like heroin and fentanyl.
Between 2011 and 2012, we saw another plateau in drug overdose deaths from prescriptions. It was followed swiftly by an explosion in fatalities from fentanyl and other synthetic black-market opioids. We’ve made a small amount of progress by turning the regulatory spotlight on doctors and pharmacies. However, most of the rest of our apparatus for fighting the opioid epidemic doesn’t go nearly far enough.
Public Health Institutions Point the Way Forward
When some U.S. states chose to expand Medicaid and Medicare — social, community-owned health care programs — to cover the cost of drug abuse treatment and prevention, those states saw a corresponding drop in opioid-related deaths.
Nothing about the satisfyingly scientific research done on this subject should take anybody by surprise. Community-owned health programs greatly expand access to life-saving overdose drugs as well as dependency and general health programs for those who need a new way to live a full life even with chronic pain.
Look at it this way: The Affordable Care Act was a public investment in private health insurance companies. It remains as incomplete, selectively helpful and controversial today as the day it became law.
Medicare and Medicaid are public investments in community-owned and government-facilitated health care systems. These programs are still wildly popular and successful, more than half a century after their implementation. They have a vital role to play in helping connect people with pain relief methodologies and medications that work, don’t result in dependency and provide a more confident path forward for those in recovery than any stint in prison ever did.
A New Way Forward Must Include Alternative Medicines
Who lives with chronic pain? As mentioned, anybody, from any walk of life, can find themselves at the mercy of debilitating and recurring pain. Which conditions make this more likely? It’s things like intensive surgeries, nerve damage and a dizzying variety of bodily injuries.
That makes it important for everybody to remember that ill health — and a lifetime of pain afterward — can befall us or somebody we love at any time. The first thing that needs to change about how we manage pain, and health in general, is how we talk about it. If there’s a more social cause than health care, it’d be hard to find.
As a nation that prizes competition and innovation perhaps above all else, we owe it to ourselves to explore every possible avenue when it comes to the cessation of chronic pain and confronting the opioid crisis in a decisive, lasting way. Here are some places to start:
- Combined with regular light exercise, meditation apps have shown a great deal of promise in helping chronic pain patients achieve relief throughout their days.
- An ever-larger body of research points to THC and other compounds in marijuana as credible pain-relievers and anti-emetics, meaning they could be perfect for those suffering from chronic pain and other complications of cancer treatment.
- The opioid dependence that over two million Americans are now facing can partially be attributed to overzealous doctors and hospital staff. It is natural to want to ease somebody’s pain as quickly as possible, but health experts have identified behavior training as another essential component in a holistic answer to pain relief that doesn’t worsen the opioid crisis.
If we can’t find our way, collectively, to more social, community-owned health care institutions, and we don’t wish to make previously illicit substances legal, and we’re skeptical about meditation and yoga, what else is there?
Science and pseudoscience. Relaxation and psychological therapies have shown signs of improving the body’s functionality and even helping ward off pain. Many people swear by acupuncture and aromatherapy for the same reasons. Whether you lean spiritually or prefer a skeptical approach, it’s clear that a decisive end to the opioid crisis requires that we change how we think and talk about pain and how we dispense health care. We must leave no stone unturned in good-faith investigations of alternative treatments that show potential.
What most of our failed pain-management and drug-control strategies so far have in common is that they put capital first. Putting people over profits — be they for pharma or private prisons — is the only thing that will help bring this particular chapter to a close.