Dilemmas with Pain

I love being able to treat people’s pain without worrying too much about addiction.  This benefit of palliative medicine is certainly important especially in the pain phobic, escapist society we live in.  My patients usually won’t live long enough and/or have such very real pathology (i.e. cancer) that misuse of medications is quite low.

This, however, doesn’t account for patients who have very real addictions and then unfortunately find themselves with a terminal diagnosis on hospice. Suddenly the ease of treating someone’s pain morphs into quite a challenging dilemma.

For instance, one of the tenants of palliative care is to relieve suffering. Thus, ready access to opioids is essential.  A regular doctor would have qualms about filling prescriptions early for pain medications or escalating doses rapidly.  But in hospice, if a patient is dying, sometimes doses easily escalate in an attempt to provide comfort and relief of suffering. 

What to do then, when you suspect inappropriate use?  Does someone with a past or even present addiction not “deserve” medications for pain? Can I refuse? Should I set limits? Refusal certainly goes against the grain of a specialty tasked with providing excellent pain control!

We certainly don’t interfere with addictions to other substances – On hospice, smokers generally keep smoking and alcoholics keep drinking…in fact it’s expected that in the last weeks of life people aren’t going to change life long habits.  Is it different then for other substances?

Going deeper philosophically I could even argue that the misuse of opioids generally starts from the ability of those substances to numb an incredible emotional pain… it’s an escape, a postponement of dealing with the hurt, etc.  The qualm then is that this desire to escape can happen in very average people who are suddenly struck with a terminal diagnosis.  It isn’t unusual to treat a 40 year old woman with breast cancer who has what we coin “existential” pain because she can’t deal with leaving her 3 small children. This type of patient often has a pattern of escalating doses of morphine to escape that reality.  Is that misuse of opioids? Or is it her way of dealing with dying? I don’t know of any physician who would refuse her medications…. So why then if the escape from pain started earlier and someone got labeled an addict, do we suddenly have issues with treating their long standing existential pain?

It’s certainly a topic worth exploring and one I admit not knowing all the answers for.  I suppose for now, I will continue to treat all pain, being aware of addictions and escapism and using the safest medications available, in an attempt to minimize risk of harm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s