Chronic pain sufferers say they are having trouble getting medicine due to opioid epidemic

Chronic pain sufferers say they are having trouble getting medicine due to opioid epidemic. // WSBT 22 photo

As the opioid epidemic gets worse, doctors are more hesitant than ever to prescribe pain meds to patients. People who rely on those drugs to manage their chronic pain are finding it harder to find doctors to treat them.

“I walk with a limp now,” Rex Carpenter said as he walked through his Niles home.

The Niles man is only 62-years-old but expects he will be in a wheel chair soon because of his back problems.

“The discs are about collapse and they are bone on bone,” said Carpenter. ”It feels like someone is sticking a hot poker in my back.”

Carpenter has had back issues for the last three decades. For the past 17 years he has been on a high dose of methadone to manage his pain.

It had worked, but a few months ago his doctor lowered his dose citing concerns of new regulations.

“I’m stuck,” said Carpenter. “I have inquired about six or so other doctor and as soon as you tell them they are on methadone, nope we don't do that. Click.”

Now, he struggles day-to-day just getting around his home.

“I'm sitting here right now and I'm hurting because sitting up is hard,” said Carpenter.

Carpenter is not alone.

Doctors are more hesitant than ever to prescribe opioids, leaving patients like him in limbo.

South Bend Clinic Pain Management Doctor Kathryn Park does not treat Carpenter, but she is seeing more patients switching doctors because of opioid prescription changes.

Data shows the amount of opioids prescribed in the US has decreased every year since 2010.

This is in part because legislative regulations have intensified and clinical policies have changed. Park says the public health emergency has sparked new guidelines from insurance providers, Medicare and even the CDC.

“So there is anxiety among doctors, so the majority of doctors no longer want to prescribe opioids because they fear they are not going to be following the regulations correctly. Some follow the regulations more tightly than required. Same with the pharmacies,” said Park.

Park's patients are required to provide more urine drug screens and sign a treatment agreement. Park does not provide early refills.

Park also cautions people from assuming that just because someone is prescribed opioids they're an addict.

“If you are taking it as prescribed, it is helping to control pain. You are not sharing. You are not abusing. You are storing them safely and you are following all the rules your doctor has set up. You are just a very good pain patient,” said Park.

While Park says she too is prescribing fewer opioids, she doesn't treat all pain patients the same.

“If I stopped all of my patients off their pain pills some of them would be confined to a wheel chair, not able to function, not able to raise their families and not able to hold a job. It is case-by-case. We always need to go case-by-case. You can't make a blanket statement for everybody,” said Park.

While prescription rates for opioids have declined, opioid overdose deaths have spiked.

Addiction experts like IU South Bend professor and social worker John Gallagher say that could be because some addicts turn to the streets when they can no longer get narcotics legally.

“Number one, they may not be able to stop because their body is physically dependent on it and they will go through withdrawal,” says Gallagher, “but when they turn to the streets, they may start buying vicodin and pills from the streets but they are also exposed to heroin.”

According to the CDC more than 42,000 people died in 2016 from opioid related overdoses. Significant increases were seen in Midwest states including Indiana and Michigan.

Gallagher says these numbers show doctors have to be looking for signs of abuse and referring patients to treatment when needed.

“We would like to see social workers, case managers, counselors, therapists in physicians’ offices and in family practice offices there to help the folks as the doctor is weaning them off the medication. And then refer into treatment,” said Gallagher.

He says treating those who are addicted could prevent others -- those who truly need the pain meds -- from falling through the cracks.

“Overall, opiates are a good medication for people with chronic pain. When taken as prescribed it helps improve the quality of their life,” said Gallagher. “So, because of this epidemic, there is a whole population of people who are prescribed opiates for pain and they are not getting the medical care that they need.”

That certainly applies to Carpenter.

He looks at his pain pills the same as he does his meds for diabetes: They keep him living life, something that's gotten more difficult.

“It has been considerably harder over the last two months. There is not much I can do about it if they won't put me back where I need to be,” said Carpenter.

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