Pain Management for the Non-addicted

Hydrocodone (Norco, Lortab, and Vicodin’s main ingredient) has been in the news a lot in the last few months.  People are dying from overdoses.  While that is very sad, it has created mayhem for those who take meds as directed.  Those who follow the rules are being ‘punished’ because of the actions of those who don’t (yes, I believe addiction is a disease, but there is a point in the beginning where using chemicals is a choice; genetics is said to load the gun, circumstance pulls the trigger, and the addict *at first* has their finger on the trigger… addiction doesn’t happen at literal gunpoint).

Hydrocodone has been moved from a schedule III to a schedule II.  That means that any refills must have a paper prescription- no getting phoned in refills.  Those with chronic pain must now go to the MD office and get the piece of paper to take to the pharmacy, then wait for the prescription to be filled, and then go back home.  That is ludicrous when someone hurts so much that leaving home for anything is painful.  My spine is collapsing, my discs are degrading, my thighs are shrinking from neuropathy, and I’ve got fibromyalgia.  I also have chronic headaches.  I’m in a lot of pain, more days than not. I don’t remember ‘pain-free’.   And now, I have to deal with the actions of people I have never met who have emotional issues that they use drugs I need to squelch.  Those people are now dictating my medical care.

Less than %6 of those who are prescribed opiates who TAKE THEM AS PRESCRIBED ever become addicted (Google it).  So, %94+ of those who need pain meds for chronic conditions are now subject to stricter rules because of those who use them for psychological reasons/pain.  I’ve had a prescription for one form of narcotic or another for almost 20 years.  I might take the meds for a few days and then take none for a couple of weeks.   I might take one pill on those days, or I might take two or three across the 24-hour period.  Depending on the type of pain I’m having, an extra gabapentin (seizure med also used in pain control) or even Excedrin will work better than the opiate.  Depending on the headache type, a triptan works much better than an opiate.  But on those days when narcotics are the only thing that will make it worth taking another breath so I can remind myself that it will ease up at some point, I shouldn’t have to pay for what an addict is doing.

Addicts are going to get their opiates (if that’s their drug of choice) no matter what.  I see this change in ‘rules’ driving more people to use herion or other illegally obtained drugs, and anticipate notable jumps in heroin deaths and overdoses over the next few years.  I already know of an entire medical group’s practice (for one entire hospital system here) that no longer allows primary care docs to prescribe pain meds because of this new change in the law (doctors already are monitored for how many prescriptions they write for narcotics, how many pills they give at a time, etc).  So the doc who knows the patient the best isn’t allowed to determine what is best for him/her.

My primary care doc  initially wasn’t comfortable in prescribing stronger  opiates when regular Vicodin (hydrocodone 5mg w/ acetaminophen 500mg) wasn’t working (after the discontinuation of Darvocet, which was effective), so I went to see a board certified pain management doctor.  Once I had a ‘system’ of what med to use when, she was then OK with prescribing, so I could have one doctor prescribing the vast majority of my prescriptions (my neurologist is the only other one), using one local pharmacy, and one mail-order pharmacy.

I have worked as a detox RN in a treatment center.  I ‘get’ that drug addiction is a disease.  I have a great deal of empathy for those who are in treatment and making positive changes in their lives.  But their inability to handle meds should not determine my medical care.  What someone else can’t control shouldn’t create issues for MY doctor when I am able to take meds as prescribed, and have for two decades (for chronic pain).  Acetaminophen (Tylenol) is the leading cause of liver failure in this country…. why isn’t that scheduled (or withdrawn from the market)?  Alcohol-related deaths can take out entire families at a time w/drunk driving- should we have licenses for buying booze?  Why are those with legitimate, documented medical disorders that cause pain made to ‘pay’ for those who don’t use the meds as directed?

My primary care doc and pain management doc (who I only see sporadically at this point) know me better than the DEA does.  My pharmacist can vouch for no hinky requests for refills.  I’ve never shown up in an ER asking for pain meds.  I don’t crave narcotics.  I don’t take larger doses, or more frequent doses than are prescribed.  I follow the rules.  And now, especially with winter approaching, I will have to go pick up a piece of paper (getting in and out of the car is painful in the summer, let alone the cold) which, until October 6,2014, was done by phone between pharmacy and the doc’s office.  I had to go every three months to be re-evaluated (which still stands), which isn’t a bad thing.  I don’t think pain meds should be thrown around as if they are insignificant… but  addiction isn’t my problem.  Pain is.  There is a huge difference.  I don’t even let myself get to the point of physical tolerance (when someone takes something as prescribed, and the body becomes used to it being there… withdrawal symptoms can happen if the med is abruptly stopped- and that is not the same as addiction).  There is a gross lack of awareness between addiction, dependence, abuse, and tolerance- and I think that applies to policy-makers as well.

No law is going to save people from themselves if they either don’t want to be saved, or don’t see that they have a problem.  They might not ‘get it’ on the first run through rehab or 12-step meetings… but those who keep at recovery will eventually get there, and be clean.

 

For those who are now in a position of not having a physician who will prescribe pain meds (whether from fear, ignorance, or restrictions from his/her employer- you may not know why they have changed their policies), here are some tips from an RN of nearly 30 years, who has taken care of addicts, chronic pain patients, and lives with chronic pain:

1.  See ONLY a board certified pain management doctor for pain control.  They often have ‘rules’ such as random drug screens, no dosage change over the phone, limits as to how many months before actually making an in-person appointment (vs. picking up the prescription from the desk), etc. Do NOT see a doc who asks how you will pay, writes a prescription, and has a line around the block…. Do. Not. Go. There.   😮

2.  Use only one pharmacy (two ONLY if you also get meds from a mail-order pharmacy for other chronic conditions).  Let your doctors know which pharmacy you use, and offer to get copies of records if they want them.  Pharmacies are bound by HIPAA (privacy laws), and might not be able to tell the doc asking what other docs have prescribed (if someone from the same practice is on call, they probably can, since they are acting on your regular doc’s behalf for you).

3.  Don’t dramatize pain.  Tell the doctor where the pain is, how bad it is, when it is better, when it is worse, what helps, and what makes it escalate.  You may have pain for the rest of your life- don’t wear out the extreme descriptions when you have 30-65 or more years to describe it.  Sometimes letting your doctor know what the pain keeps you from doing is helpful…. those pain scales are kind of useless for chronic pain.  But, if you tell your doctor that when it’s moderate, you have to postpone laundry, or if it’s moderately severe, you have to cancel appointments, that can give better information for chronic pain.  It’s way different than acute pain.

4.  Agree to get tests done to more clearly identify what is causing pain.  If you refuse to get diagnostic tests done, that can indicate that you know that nothing is going to show up.  Not all disorders show up on tests, but working with your doctor when they want more information via testing will go a long way.

5.  NEVER change doses or frequency without talking to the doctor who prescribed the pain meds (or any meds, for that matter), unless you have been given specific instructions.   There are some pain meds that have a very narrow window between effective dose and the dose that will cause you to stop breathing.

6.   Don’t ever forget the good parts of your life.  You are not defined by your pain or any other medical conditions.  You decide if you are happy or not.  You decide if you focus on nothing else.  I know that there are days (and sometimes weeks) when you really can’t focus on anything else for much of the time… but when you can, take advantage of those days and be thankful for your pets, family, friends, the ability  to still work (I’d give just about anything to still be working as an RN), your interests, etc.  Your attitude is completely in your control, even if nothing else seems to be.   😉  ❤

When It’s Too Late To Fix Leukemia

This week, a local anchorwoman died of complications from leukemia. She was diagnosed on Tuesday and was dead Thursday night. Two days. That was it.  She had been working as scheduled  up until the day she called 911 for a worsening bladder infection, with severe pain and nausea. Then she got the devastating news she had leukemia. The next day she needed emergency brain surgery, and never woke up. She was 29 years old. Vibrant. Professional. Animal lover. Upbeat.

You can search:  Jeannie Hayes, WREX-TV 13, Rockford, IL and get more of the media reports.

Of course my first thoughts were with her family, friends, and coworkers. They had no time to really register what was going on.  One day, she was working, the next day she finds out she has cancer, and on the second day she died.  Scary stuff.  I’m sure they’re still in somewhat of a state of shock. Her viewing was today at a local church.  A week ago, their lives were ‘normal’.  They had no warning.

As a leukemia survivor (also with acute myelocytic leukemia, subtype M3, or acute promyelocytic leukemia), it hits really close to home. I don’t know what subtype Jeannie had.  I found out about mine through a standard CBC (complete blood count) that was part of my annual diabetic assessment. My lab work was BAD. As an RN since 1985, I didn’t necessarily know what flavor of ‘bad’ I had, but I knew it wasn’t good- I had a bit of warning.  I had been scheduled for a bone marrow biopsy, but didn’t make it to that appointment before the shortness of breath led me to a 911 call. I have a history of blood clots in my lungs, and have been told to always get anything ‘funky’ checked out. I knew what my lab work looked like. And I knew that the shortness of breath was likely due to anemia. But I never know…

So, I’m in the ER for hours (crazy night there), and got admitted when the doc told me she didn’t know what was going on, but my labs had dropped by half in a couple of weeks (there wasn’t much room for them to drop). She was really concerned. The next morning I met my oncologist and within 10 minutes they were doing the bone marrow biopsy.  The morning after that, I got the diagnosis, was moved to a room in an area set aside for those who must have as minimal exposure to infection as possible, and started on chemotherapy pills.  I also got a PICC line inserted, even though my platelets were horrible; I had to have vein access for the IV chemo that started the following day.  I soon developed purpura on my legs and abdomen (tiny purple hemorrhages from low platelets)… not a good sign. Thirteen units of packed red blood cells (blood transfusion) and twelve units of platelets were needed during my stay… THANK YOU, blood donors.

Had I not gone for the annual diabetic lab work, I wouldn’t have lived. My oncologist told me that I was in really bad shape.  He called it ‘dead sick’ in his Iranian accent.  And I remember being too sick to care what they were doing. I had some infections set in, and was on vancomycin and gentamycin for about 5 weeks. For those who know what those are, they know that they’re strong antibiotics. I also was given 2 ‘protective’ eye drop antibiotics and steroids.  The ear infection and cellulitis into my neck and jaw were pretty bad.  The ENT doc had to pry my ear open to put in a ‘wick’ for the ear antibiotic drops to seep into- there was no opening in my right ear from the swelling. None…it was ‘slammed’ shut with edema and infection. The ENT also had to suck out the pus from my ear.  My temp was over 103.  For someone with no immune system to speak of, that’s not good.  I got very lucky.

If I hadn’t had that routine CBC, I wouldn’t have gotten any follow up, or known what was going on.  I’m so used to having something go wrong medically, I blow off a lot.  Note to self: don’t blow stuff off.  My ‘vision’ of my demise is me just going to bed, and not waking up.  My dad may have found out I was dead after not hearing from me for a couple of days. I hate to think if he would have come over and used his key to get in, finding me on his own… and my dog wandering around confused (we talk nearly daily as ‘attendance checks’- he’s 80 years old, and I’m a train wreck- we try to keep track of each other).

I’m so grateful I found out in time to get help.  I’m expected to be OK. I went into remission during that first 6 weeks in the hospital (April-part of May, 2010).  In April 2015, pending no relapses, I will be considered cured.  I’m one of the lucky ones. It was hell going through chemotherapy for 19 months, including 50 doses of arsenic infusions (IV), and 11 months of tretinoin, methotrexate, and M6mercaptopurine.  My body went through a lot. But, I got a chance to live.  APL is one of the most curable forms of leukemia, when it’s detected and treatment started immediately.

How I wish Jeannie would have had that same chance.  Even ‘just’ a chance to say goodbye, and have some time to do what she needed to do before ‘just’ not being here anymore.  I wish that for everyone.  IF someone ends up with cancer (or anything terminal), I wish them the chance to see their loved ones and for them all to have the opportunity to let go of each other, hard as that is.  I wish them the chance to ‘finish’ things. My understanding via the tribute on her news channel (WREX-TV 13), is that her family got there when she was in a coma after the emergency brain surgery. They came as fast as they could, but the cancer was faster.

I later read that the average time someone lives without treatment after the onset of the disease (with minimal symptoms) is 30 days.  Many people are diagnosed at autopsy.  The biggest ‘tip’ I could give anybody- if you feel something isn’t right, get it checked until you get an answer that makes sense.  Not everybody can be fixed.  But everybody deserves a chance.

For everyone else, it’s probably a good idea to know what you want to say to people, and do it.  Get things put together.  None of us are guaranteed tomorrow.

EDIT- 11/21/2012- Today, WREX gave info about the specific type of leukemia that Jeannie Hayes had. She had acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL).  This is the same type of leukemia I had- and makes it even more sad, since it’s one of the most curable when it’s caught in time.  Like Jeannie,  I had no specific symptoms to suspect cancer. I had routine lab work done.  Jeannie had the bladder infection, and it was ‘caught’ when she went to the ER for that.  I also had some bleeding issues- but was in the hospital, and because I was already being treated, I was able to recover.    My thoughts and prayers go out to Jeannie’s family and friends.  There was no time to say goodbye.  ❤