Opioid Overdoses: How Do We Balance Help and Harm?

Dr. Sharon Orrange
Dr. Orrange is an Associate Professor of Clinical Medicine in the Division of Geriatric, Hospitalist and General Internal Medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.
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Opioid pain medication is an emotional topic for everyone. Patients who struggle with chronic noncancer pain and need opioid medications feel they are portrayed as addicts when they ask for refills. Each week I see many patients using opioids for the appropriate reason, who have tried and failed with other medications and yet feel stigmatized by the use of medicine they need.

The flipside, however, is that more and more of us are dying from prescription pain medication overdoses, in addition to heroin overdoses when addicts move from Oxycontin to heroin. Many heroin addicts report their addiction started when a doctor prescribed them an opioid pain medication for something: wisdom teeth, knee surgery, or many other common uses.

You see the struggle here—these medications work when used for the right reason, but can cause massive destruction when it is not indicated.

Alarmingly, a recent study revealed that 91% of patients who were hospitalized for opioid medication overdose were prescribed opioids by their doctor AFTER their overdose. So physicians are largely to blame there, and rightly so.

New prescribing guidelines are being set for opioid pain medications that will lead many to feel frustrated that their doctor “doesn’t want to give them pain meds.” Here are the points on both sides, please weigh in. The struggle is real.

Dr O.

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