Pain Relief

Physical pain is a fairly common occurrence in life, so I suppose everyone walks around figuring it’s a sensation they’re familiar with. But something I learned over this past week is that there was a whole new level of pain far beyond anything I’d previously experienced. In my case, it was caused by a small cyst growing beneath one of my wisdom teeth that was pressing on a nerve in my jaw. And, fortunately, it was easy for an oral surgeon to remove. But it hurt a lot while it lasted, and the experience was terrible.

It made me think back to complaints I’d read and briefly acknowledged over the years about how the “war on drugs” has interfered with medical efforts to treat pain. As Mark Kleiman put it:

Physicians and their regulators are naturally concerned about the risk of iatrogenic (treatment-induced) drug dependency. Consequently, they have tended to be sparing in their use of opiate and opioid pain relievers, even when the pain involved is extreme and the patient’s short life expectancy, as in the case of terminal cancer patients, makes addiction a largely notional problem. Better professional education has made more recent cohorts of physicians less afraid of over-prescribing painkillers than their older colleagues, but the upsurge of prescription-analgesic abuse (especially of hydrocodone [Vicodin] and oxycodone [Percodan, Oxycontin]) has generated a backlash. […]

Current policies are scaring physicians away from treating pain aggressively. Many doctors and medical groups now simply refuse to write prescriptions for any substance in Schedule II, the most tightly regulated group of prescription drugs, including the most potent opiate and opioid pain-relievers and the potent amphetamine stimulants. The opiate-and-stimulant combination the textbooks recommend for treating chronic pain is almost never given in practice for fear (a fear well in excess of the actual risk) of disciplinary action and criminal investigation for a physician prescribing “uppers and downers” together. It’s time to loosen up.

This is terrible. One of the most interesting findings from the happiness research literature is that human beings are remarkably good at adapting to all kinds of misfortunes. Chronic pain, however, is an exception. People either get effective treatment for their pain, or else they’re miserable. Adaptation is fairly minimum. The upshot is that from a real human welfare perspective, we ought to put a lot of weight on making sure that people with chronic pain get the best treatment possible. Minimizing addiction is a fine public policy goal, but the priority should be on making sure that people with legitimate needs can get medicine.