The making of an opioid epidemic, by Chris McNeal

This is an excellent article about the history of the opioid epidemic. From Chris McNeal at theguardian.com:

When high doses of painkillers led to widespread addiction, it was called one of the biggest mistakes in modern medicine. But this was no accident.

Jane Ballantyne was, at one time, a true believer. The British-born doctor, who trained as an anaesthetist on the NHS before her appointment to head the pain department at Harvard and its associated hospital, drank up the promise of opioid painkillers – drugs such as morphine and methadone – in the late 1990s. Ballantyne listened to the evangelists among her colleagues who painted the drugs as magic bullets against the scourge of chronic pain blighting millions of American lives. Doctors such as Russell Portenoy at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York saw how effective morphine was in easing the pain of dying cancer patients thanks to the hospice movement that came out of the UK in the 1970s.

Why, the new thinking went, could the same opioids not be made to work for people grappling with the physical and mental toll of debilitating pain from arthritis, wrecked knees and bodies worn out by physically demanding jobs? As Portenoy saw it, opiates were effective painkillers through most of recorded history and it was only outdated fears about addiction that prevented the drugs still playing that role.

Opioids were languishing from the legacy of an earlier epidemic that prompted President Theodore Roosevelt to appoint the US’s first opium commissioner, Dr Hamilton Wright, in 1908. Portenoy wanted to liberate them from this taint. Wright described Americans as “the greatest drug fiends in the world”, and opium and morphine as a “national curse”. After that the medical profession treated opioid pain relief with what Portenoy and his colleagues regarded as unwarranted fear, stigmatising a valuable medicine.

These new evangelists painted a picture of a nation awash in chronic pain that could be relieved if only the medical profession would overcome its prejudices. They constructed a web of claims they said were rooted in science to back their case, including an assertion that the risk of addiction from narcotic painkillers was “less than 1%” and that dosages could be increased without limit until the pain was overcome. But the evidence was, at best, thin and in time would not stand up to detailed scrutiny. One theory, promoted by Dr David Haddox, was that patients genuinely experiencing pain could not become addicted to opioids because the pain neutralised the euphoria caused by the narcotic. He said that what looked to prescribing doctors like a patient hooked on the drug was “pseudo-addiction”.

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