In face of epidemic, chronic pain sufferers seek alternatives to opioids

Photo via WTSP

PALM HARBOR, Fla. (WTSP) Karen Wright’s chronic pain began more than a decade ago.

The now-retired nurse suffered a serious back injury after a patient fell on top of her, she said, but after an unsuccessful surgery, pain pills became a way of life.

She spent nearly three years taking fentanyl — an extremely potent opiate — before being prescribed methadone and oxycodone for the next 10 years.

“Did it help my pain? It did,” Wright said. “But I felt like a zombie, I had no quality of life.”

Wright said she feared becoming an addict, always being careful to never ask for an increase in dosage. She knew of other people suffering from similar chronic pain who were unable to avoid such a fate, she said.

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“It was very scary because these were very strong drugs,” Wright told 10News. “It was a tremendous concern and I think a lot of it is lack of education, that people are not aware there are alternatives.”

About two years ago, Wright discovered a Bay area physician who was offering an alternative. She jumped at the chance.

“When he saw how much medication I was on, he was pretty horrified,” she said.

Dr. Miguel Attias has been practicing specialized pain management in Palm Harbor for nearly a decade. He thought Wright could be a candidate for a spinal cord stimulator — a battery-operated device the size of a pacemaker that’s implanted into the patient to control pain through constant electronic impulses directly into the nerves.

“Chronic pain should be considered a disease,” Attias said. “It should be targeted rather than just the hurt or the psychological suffering.”

Chronic pain is defined as pain lasting longer than three to six months, according to Living a Healthy Life with Chronic Pain, which is beyond the normal time for healing and recovery.

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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the amount of opioids prescribed and sold in the U.S. has quadrupled since 1999 even though the amount of pain reported by Americans hasn’t significantly changed.

Opioid overdoses have quadrupled over the last two decades, leading state and federal administrators to take drastic action.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott has proposed a three-day limit on prescribed opioids in an effort to step up the state’s fight against the powerful drugs.

In March 2016, the Centers for Disease Control issued stricter guidelines for doctors who prescribe opioids. Among them: Nonopioid therapy such as physical therapy is preferred for chronic pain; when opioids are used, the lowest effective dosage should be prescribed; and providers should always exercise caution when prescribing opioids.

Attias was one of the first physicians in the Bay area to begin offering the alternative treatment after it received FDA approval in mid-2015, he said, while the nationwide opioid crisis has heightened interest in the therapy.

“The opioid crisis brought the pain crisis to the forefront,” Attias said.

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Attias argues opioids are ineffective at treating long-term chronic pain because patients often develop a tolerance, which in turn requires higher dosages, leading down a potentially dangerous or deadly path. He says he believes an alternative treatment like a spinal cord stimulator does more than just block pain.

“We have reasons to believe that it actually modifies the disease,” he said. “It’s not just putting a Band-Aid on it.”

Unlike spinal cord stimulator therapies in the past, Attias says the technology he’s now offering to his patients has progressed enough to eliminate tingling sensations in affected areas that would often be impacted by a patient’s body movement.

“You obtain relief without having to feel anything other than relief,” he said.

For Wright, she says just a year of treatment has reversed what had been a decade of feeling trapped. She now bikes 20 miles a week and is able to exercise once again.

“It’s changed my life in every way,” she said.