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Anyone who’s suffered from chronic pain can tell you – it’s not just the pain, it’s the fear of pain that’s awful too. About 100 million U.S. adults are affected by chronic pain conditions – a problem that comes with a cost of between $560 and $635 billion annually in medical care and lost productivity.

Managing chronic pain, like managing most chronic health conditions, often requires a multipronged approach and prescription drugs can be an effective part of the treatment process. However, one of the most helpful categories of drugs, Opioids, is now at the center of a growing problem – abuse and overdose.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the drug overdose death rate in the United States, the death rate per 100,000 population, has more than tripled since 1990 and has never been higher. The public health agency reports that about three out of four prescription drug overdoses are caused by opioid pain relievers. This unprecedented rise in overdose deaths in the U.S. parallels a 300 percent increase since 1999 in the sale of these strong painkillers. That accounts for opioid pain relievers, today, being involved in more overdose deaths than cocaine and heroin combined.

But for chronic pain sufferers, the pain is still real.

This can often put doctors at odds with patients; between wanting to treat a serious medical condition and improve quality of life, against trying to prevent a growing and deadly problem that is spiraling out of control. Part of the problem might be the lack of a standard guideline when it comes to prescribing opioids for chronic pain – but how can doctors create a standard treatment when chronic pain itself varies so much in intensity, frequency, and cause? Another factor to consider is the variation in everyone’s biochemistry. Not all drugs are the same, and everyone’s individual biochemistry determines how their bodies will react to different treatments. This means that some drugs can be more problematic for some than others.

One of the challenges, according to doctors, is that there aren’t good estimates of how common it is for chronic pain patients to develop problematic opioid use. 

A doctor treating a person for pain needs to look for potential risk factors for substance abuse, such as a personal or family history of other types of substance abuse or psychiatric disorders.
If you or someone you love suffers from chronic pain, it’s important to understand that under ideal conditions, properly supervised use of opioids can be a great tool in their fight for pain management. However, it’s far more important to understand the potential risks and dangers. Good communication, knowledge of non-opioid treatment alternatives, and appropriate monitoring and care with an experienced professional in a structured setting is always the best approach.

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