The Increased Stigmatization of Individuals With Chronic Pain Since the Inception of the Opioid Epidemic
Individuals with chronic pain are often stigmatized by society, whether it be from family members, friends, colleagues, or even medical professionals. Stigma of individuals with chronic pain involves false beliefs that they are lazy, drug-seekers, or making up or exaggerating their pain.
The opioid epidemic
Prescription and illicit opioid use in the United States has steadily increased for several decades. Unfortunately, the misuse of opioid medications has led to an increase in opioid addiction, overdoses and deaths. These are legitimate concerns, and the narrative surrounding the opioid epidemic highlights these dangers, resulting in an increase in regulations for prescription opioids. This has led to a decrease in the prescribing of these medications, even for individuals who require them to treat their chronic pain.
Increased stigmatization of individuals with chronic pain
News media coverage of the opioid epidemic and the perpetuation of myths about opioids and chronic pain has increased stigma for individuals with chronic pain. Stigma perpetuates the idea that individuals with chronic pain may be drug-seeking or addicted, even when they are taking opioids exactly as prescribed for pain relief. Individuals with chronic pain who require opioid therapy may face negative comments from uninformed family members or friends. They may also experience negative interactions with physicians or pharmacists who suspect they are lying about their pain to obtain opioids.
Some physicians have forced opioid tapering or opioid discontinuation upon their patients, fearing negative health outcomes for their patients or legal consequences for themselves. Other physicians and health care facilities have implemented stigmatizing measures to counter the opioid epidemic, such as pill counts, drug contracts that contain demeaning language, or required toxicology screenings.
The bottom line
Despite the opioid epidemic, a physician’s decision to prescribe opioids for chronic pain should be made on an individual basis (with a thorough assessment of the potential risks and benefits for that individual). Efforts should be made to educate the health care community and the public in general about chronic pain and opioid therapy. This will help decrease or eliminate the stigma about individuals with chronic pain and opioid treatment that developed as a result of the opioid epidemic.