An ongoing lawsuit in KY seeks to hold pharmaceutical companies accountable for the epidemic of opioid painkiller abuse and addiction troubling many parts of the state. Meanwhile, a new scientific study suggests that non-addictive pain medications may be within reach, offering a much less risky way to help chronic pain sufferers relieve their distress without falling victim to addiction.
The problem of chronic pain and addiction
Many KY residents have seen firsthand the unfortunate link between chronic pain and addiction. The problem is twofold: chronic pain problems affect a vast number of people, and the medications currently used to treat pain are incredibly addictive. So just how common is chronic pain? A recent study found that 20 percent of people in the U.S. suffer from serious chronic pain problems. This was defined as chronic pain every day for periods of at least three months. That number doesn’t include people will less severe pain problems but who might still seek treatment for pain.
The most effective medications at treating severe chronic pain are also highly addictive, leading to drug abuse and long-term dependency. The high prescribing rate of opioid painkillers, notably in patient cases where alternative treatment options could also be effective, has contributed to the opioid abuse epidemic in places like KY. Louisville’s Courier-Journal reported that, “Kentucky loses more than 1,000 residents a year to drug overdoses.” Statistics like this have led many states to institute strict prescription drug monitoring systems to prevent abuse.
KY seeks damages from drug company that helped create the prescription drug abuse epidemic
Kentucky is notable for its ongoing attempt to hold the pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma accountable for its role in the state’s opioid abuse epidemic. In a potential $1 billion lawsuit against the company that manufactures OxyContin, a potent opioid painkiller, the state is hoping to successfully argue that Purdue Pharma misled providers about their drug’s safeguards against abuse and the extent of its addictive properties. That would mean the company played a huge part in facilitating the overprescription of a dangerous medication that has since become widely abused. The suit, filed in 2007, could finally go to court in Pike County, KY in 2015. A settlement or decision in the state’s favor could provide a huge sum for funding KY’s drug treatment programs.
Researchers cite progress in making non-addictive opioid pain medications
But what about the persistent problem of how to treat severe chronic pain? There are alternative ways of treating chronic pain, like antidepressant medications, cognitive therapy, and even yoga, but in many cases severe pain can only be effectively relieved with the addictive opioid painkillers. At least, that’s the current state of severe chronic pain medication. But recent research suggests that safer, non-addictive opioid drugs could start to become available in a couple of years. Some companies are currently working on opioid pain medications that would provide the effective pain relief of opioids without the risk for abuse and addiction, according to the Courier-Journal.
The Courier-Journal story detailed a promising drug being developed by Cara Therapeutics. The company claims its research shows that the drug does not produce a high and doesn’t even enter the patient’s brain, where addiction takes hold with other drugs. The article cited Dr. Gavril Pasternak of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, who said that at least 12 other such drugs are currently being researched. Some officials remain skeptical about opioid drugs promoted as safe and non-addictive. Van Ingram, executive director of KY’s Office of Drug Control Policy, recalled the assurances made by companies like Purdue Pharma that previous opioid painkillers were relatively safe, claims since shown to be overly optimistic, to say the least.
Until new opioid medications are proven to treat chronic pain without the high potential for abuse, sufferers of severe chronic pain are left with little in the way of risk-free options. Chronic pain management requires the close monitoring of a physician, especially when opioid pain medications are brought into the mix. For those who have already become addicted to painkillers, it’s important first to seek addiction treatment before finding a good strategy for treating pain. Treatment centers like Stepworks even offer help in their programs for finding alternative ways of relieving pain. States like KY hope to use the missteps of the past to provide more treatment options and better safeguards against abuse in the future.[Image by Darron Birgenheier is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0]