Opioid Prescription- The New Red Flag

Red Flage Warning

I recently (here) blogged about the devastating rise in overdose deaths from prescription opioid medications. This is no longer a hidden danger in our society. President Obama has proposed $1.1 Billion to address this issue. Presidential candidates from both political parties have frequently mentioned the opioid epidemic in their stump speeches and even in their primary victories. The Centers for Disease Control have recognized this alarming epidemic as one that is largely self-induced by the medical and pharmaceutical industries. In 2012, health care providers wrote 259 million prescriptions for opioid drugs—enough for every American adult to have their own bottle of the pills! This has lead to drug overdose being the leading cause of injury death in 2013. Among people 25 to 64 years old, drug overdose caused more deaths than motor vehicle traffic crashes.  Given that the number one reason for an opioid prescription is Low Back Pain we can only describe this is as an utterly epic failure.

What is our role in reversing this process as we go forward clinically? It is well established that PT First for Low Back Pain decreases opioid use. Our continued efforts across all fronts in getting this message out to consumers, payers, and the medical community at large remains a top priority. However, what about the patient sitting right in front of you today? During your intake exam do you currently see the Oxycodone (OxyContin and Percocet), Hydrocodone (Vicodin) or Fentanyl (Duragesic) as a red flag in your history? Given the current statistics on the likelihood of overdose or death from these drugs I would urge each of us to place these drugs into the category of a red flag.

Once we identify red flags we are left with a decision of what is the next action step. As a start point let’s focus on the patient with LBP and a relatively new prescription of these drugs (4 weeks or less). The most important thing is that you must first establish trust and credibility with your patient, which is gained by exceptional communication and true environment of caring and compassion. This is not that difficult! As a side note yesterday I had the most hilarious encounter with a middle-aged patient (with a persistent pain problem) and her husband. As I was nearing completion of the visit, the husband says to me, “You have the best listening skills of anyone we have ever encountered in medicine.” Then the wife commented, “Well in medicine, that isn’t saying much!”   We all laughed so hard it hurt. It is funny how humor gets at the truth of what ails healthcare. Lets get back to our patient with LBP on opioids that you have established a reasonable therapeutic alliance with. It is now time to find out the details of how and when they are taking these drugs. Once that is established shift to the open ended questions on function and pleasure such as:

Are you doing more while you are on the medications?

What things are you not doing when you are on the medications?

Do you enjoy taking the medications or would you rather not take them?

Though patient and situation dependent this is usually the time to begin probing for understanding. That again is best done with questions.

Do you know how addictive these drugs can be?

Do you think you could get addicted to these?

Are you aware that prescription overdose deaths caused more deaths than motor vehicle crashes?

This is usually enough to get the conversation started and gain an understanding of the patient’s perspective on using these drugs for their LBP. The next step is to complete the history and physical examination. A detailed examination is in itself therapeutic and increases the therapeutic alliance. At this point placing the plan of care in the context of the red flag opioid use is critical. Open discussion and framing of the situation in terms of real risk is necessary. Your plan should be very clear that a key goal is immediate reduction followed by termination of opioid medication use. In closing, I have provided a quick educational video that might be helpful for you or your patients in understanding the drawbacks of these medications. We are at a critical juncture; please provide any comments or useful suggestions to help stem this epidemic.

7 responses to “Opioid Prescription- The New Red Flag

  1. Brian D'Orazio says:

    Great post! The bigger problem comes from those on opioids more than 2 – 3 months at a rate of 4 or more pills a day. I’m curious how others feel. My experience is that very few in this group are seeing me with a genuine desire to improve. Although this is an oversimplification, most of these patients are in my office to prove that they need the meds. Almost always, they are following MD orders so they don’t jeopardize their medication prescription. Further, conversations with the MD regarding my suspicion that the patient is exhibiting drug seeking behavior usually results in no action being taken, or simply sending the patient to another. PT. What are your experiences among this group?

    1. Angela says:

      Bullshit! Did you ever have chronic debilitating pain and multiple back surgeries and PT that never worked and scar tissue everywhere and arthritis everywhere and spinal stenosis, etc. Doc after docs tell you they can’t help you and without the meds that you’re furious you have to take you’re in the fetal position on the couch everyday crying your eyes out.

      I have weened myself off opiates so many times I lost count thinking I beat it somehow and miraculously got healed. Put my body through hell for weeks or more. Then had to go right back on them because I couldn’t move and was hysterical.

      You people simplify this situation so much it makes me so mad. Everyone’s seeking drugs. All the new DEA changes. Drs will know if patients are running out of meds too soon. Pharmacies will know if their switching drs or switching pharmacies. I still don’t believe the problem is the drs. It’s what they buy on the streets when the use up their prescribed medications. But no one wants to talk about how bad the drug problem is on the streets.

      Drs can’t write crap anymore. They can’t even see over a certain amount of patients. For eight months since a serious fall needing one to three more back surgeries I found only one pain dr that could see me. I switched and was out of luck. I’m now tapering off meds again and I am a patient who really needs them in order to have any type of life. The soonest I will have even my first back surgery looks like October. I will be in excruciating pain for two months because the government blames prescription opiates and doctors for all these deaths that should be blamed on street drugs and herion. Where does a pain patient who truly needs to be on medication go when they can’t get help from doctors anymore? Has the government though about the can of worms they’re opening there with the amount of deaths they’ll cause. Because these people will wind up herion addicts and there lives will be destroyed because it a cheaper drug but will do the trick, then they’ll die a terrible death because the couldn’t see a dr.

      Good job guys. You already pulled all the licenses of the bad drs and continue to do so. You already changed all the rules on the meds the drs can write regardless of whether it helps the patient or not and say try PT. WTF!!! What about all of us that are in too much pain to even do a neck lift without it causing such a flare up the the physical therapists have to work two weeks to calm it down. You know nothing about serious injuries, chronic pain or the emotional toll it takes on people.

      Yes, everyone becomes dependent after long term use and it freaking sucks. But if you have no choice what do you do. Addicts are people who use there drugs up and then steal money and other things and go on the streets and steal or buy drugs. There is a BIG difference. Everyone is not and addict. I’ve been sober from alcohol for 22 years and it was a really hard decision for me to make to have to go onto these drugs. I talked to many people in recovery, I talked a meetings. In the Big Book it says sometimes we have to take certain medication but as long as we take them exactly as prescribed we are still sober. In 22 years I have taken my medications exactly as prescribed because my sobriety means that much to me. And this year, I called at least 30 different pain management offices and 80% of them had no room for new patients because of the new laws so now I have no meds and I’m a candidate who’s going to be bedridden and in terrible pain for months because I’ve given up on calling doctors with all these freaking new laws. So thanks. Thanks for helping the war on drugs in the wrong place so you could cover up how bad it truly has been in the streets for at least 15 years with massive amounts of pain killers being sold. I really don’t want to leave my name and email in fear that you’ll put me on some kind of bad list or something. But I’m so fed up I finally had to speak out.

  2. Great post and video on a huge problem, Tim. Thanks very much.

  3. Tim Flynn PT PhD says:

    Brian,
    Great question and I look forward to others responses. You have pointed out one of the huge problems that exist. Addiction rates are sky high and treatment centers are few, underfunded, and require commitment. That being said it starts with a conversation. Personally that is not the patient I am seeing. I see more of the older adult that doesn’t even realize they are addicted or often understand what these drugs are.

  4. Bryce Williams says:

    Excellent post, Dr. Flynn. I was actually just talking about this very subject with my wife a couple of nights ago. Not only has prescription opioid use become a huge problem in and of itself, it has been suggested that it is potentially a gateway toward heroin use/addiction. I just recently read a 2012 paper by Michelle Peavy and colleagues in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs that sought to determine what proportion of heroin users started with prescription opiates. While this study was not the greatest from a methodological standpoint, it did present some preliminary information from which more robust research can done. I didn’t have time to do a literature search for studies done since then so there may already be more up-to-date information on this. Regardless, I think this opioid crisis demonstrates how important our role is, as PTs. Given that the information is out there that PT first beats surgery and reduces opioid use, it is more imperative than ever that we as a profession establish more standardized care and decrease the variability of practice that our patients so often encounter. We are at a critical juncture indeed. Thanks for posting!

  5. Dee Smithy says:

    We’ve been here before and have persecuted and prosecuted everyone and anyone who takes opioids-Didn’t work then and won’t work now! Learning seems to have amnesia when it comes to past prohibitive policy. Witch hunts don’t help! 100 million ppl suffer with chronic pain but no one is addressing that statistic, only addiction, which is mostly heroin (like it or not) If the medical profession continues to agree with failed policy, chronic pain sufferers will be the victims, once again

  6. Pete says:

    This is just chapter 99+ in the governments failed drug war. I am caught between needing pain medication -OR- going for a medical retirement. I can work and do when I can get medication. Now my oncologist has flagged me as ‘opioid dependent’ based on a conversation where I ASKED him to take over my pain management from the VA, and now I am waiting for the other shoe to drop. It is absolutely absurd to think I may be forced to take a medical retirement over big government overreach. I still can get by quite nicely without pain medication when NOTHING is expected of me, but I would prefer to work, and it would seem most logical that society would be better off keeping tax payers productive and fully functional.

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