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In defence of opioids

For chronic pain sufferers like me, they are a godsend.

CS Strachen

Topics Politics Science & Tech UK USA

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America sneezes, Britain keels over with influenza. For years, we have imported countless American social and cultural debates, be it on race or abortion. Political issues that divide Americans are almost always assumed to be relevant here. But this is not necessarily the case.

Look no further than the growing opposition to opioids in Britain. In the US, opioid use is a blight on society. But to tens of thousands of British patients who suffer from a disability, opioids are the difference between leading a productive life and leading no life at all. This increased suspicion of opioids in the UK is therefore deeply concerning.

Much of the wariness about opioids comes from a failure to distinguish between physical dependence and addiction. The vast majority of chronic patients who are prescribed opioids in the UK are not addicted to them. Instead, patients manage their doses carefully, noting their pain levels in order to lead productive lives.

I should know. In July 2010, I was lying on a Catalan beach debating which fish restaurant to take the family to that evening. At 41 years old, I was an executive at one of the UK’s largest companies. I was looking forward to soon moving to Singapore for work. By March 2011, however, I was in the middle of a three-month hospital stint, suffering from an undiagnosed condition that left me financially, professionally and physically ruined. I had two young children at the time and had no idea what benefits we were entitled to. We didn’t even have the money for nappies.

The road to recovery was a long one. Within a year, I was diagnosed with a rare gastrointestinal condition. I tried to manage it with a careful diet, but that did not stop the attacks of severe pain. Left with no other option, I spent the next few years in and out of hospital. I was entirely dependent on intravenous morphine, which made it impossible to work.

That was until a consultant anaesthetist came to my rescue. Using a combination of tramadol, mindfulness and novocain patches, I was finally able to manage the constant background pain and lead a relatively normal life again. And to manage the breakthrough pain that had previously hospitalised me, I was prescribed an opioid called Oxycodone. Unlike OxyContin, the slow-release opioid that has gripped America, Oxycodone provides instant relief. Using small doses, I was able to tackle my severe pain with a scalpel instead of a sledgehammer. My condition was finally manageable.

There is no ultimate cure for my pain, but I have managed my flare-ups at home for a decade now. As a result, I have rebuilt my career, provided for my family and been a good husband and father. Without my pain-management regime, of which Oxycodone is essential, none of this would have been possible. In fact, I would probably be dead.

This is why I am dismayed at the increasingly negative attitude towards Oxycodone in the UK. Alarmingly, quite a lot of that negativity has come from non-pharmaceutical healthcare workers. My requests for repeat prescriptions are now met with increasing scepticism, making routine pick-ups stressful. Meanwhile, in the workplace, well-meaning but ill-informed managers, who are aware that I take Oxy, increasingly treat me as a liability rather than a respected colleague. This attitude is devastating for disabled people as they try to manage their conditions while continuing to work.

This change in British attitudes to Oxycodone appears to have its roots in America’s opioid crisis, which is undoubtedly a scandal – a result of over-prescribing OxyContin to people who simply do not need such extreme doses of pain relief. By some counts, it has claimed half a million lives.

Britain, however, is not the US. Oxycodone is highly controlled here. It can certainly be addictive to those who are vulnerable to drug abuse. But contrary to the popular perception, ‘highs’ from opioids are not sought out by the vast majority of people. To treat Oxycodone purely as a ‘high’ ignores its primary purpose: to allow patients to manage severe pain. Indeed, hundreds of thousands of people, myself included, are physically dependent on Oxycodone to live normal, productive lives. That can hardly be called an addiction.

At a time when record rates of long-term illness are keeping millions out of the workplace, we shouldn’t be needlessly demonising drugs that are essential for those of us who suffer chronic pain. We are at risk of condemning thousands of Brits to a lifetime of needless suffering.

CS Strachen is a writer.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Politics Science & Tech UK USA

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