I knew this patient would be difficult.
He had a long relationship with heroin. He was in the hospital because of complications from unmanaged diabetes. And he was suspected of drug-seeking behavior in past visits to the hospital.
Knowing all this, I still made a mistake I hope to never make again, but I’m sure I will. My patient said he was in pain, and I didn’t know whether to believe him.
From the outset, this man was combative and rude. I’m a fourth-year medical student at Brown University and was there to help, but he refused to answer my questions. He demeaned members of the team caring for him. He arbitrarily declined blood draws and tests and often disregarded our advice. He wouldn’t tell me if he had a home. He wouldn’t clarify if he had any family or friends who could help him manage any of his complex medical conditions. And, despite the track marks on his arm, he refused to talk about his drug use.
So midway through his hospital stay, when he started to complain about an unexpected, debilitating pain in his finger, and then clamored for oxycodone, I was suspicious.
Every day, nearly 4,500 Americans begin using prescription opioids or heroin non-medically. About 80 percent of heroin users, like my patient, first start with prescription opioids and then transition to heroin because it’s cheap and easy to get.
It’s hard to treat these patients when they tell us they are in pain. Do they want pain control, or do they want drugs? Patients with opioid dependency experience and tolerate pain differently. And doctors sometimes end up stigmatizing our patients in pain, much as society does. We’re less likely to manage their pain well, and that’s exactly what I did.
Compounding this difficulty? My patient wouldn’t elaborate on his symptoms or allow me to examine the finger in question. When I asked him if he had dealt with anything like this in the past, he announced he was done talking about it.
Eventually, he relented, but the tests we ordered were normal, and an expert could find no source. My team and I decided that the patient was drug-seeking again, and we offered him ibuprofen.
But as four more days went by, the patient’s pain only worsened, and he constantly and bitterly complained about it to anyone who would listen. It got so bad, in fact, that he even asked me to examine him. While I was still suspicious, I happily agreed, hoping to bring my team some evidence that we were right to be skeptical. To my surprise, though, he really did have difficulty bending his finger.
For the first time during his hospital stay, his pain became real to me, and I realized I had wronged my patient by not taking his complaints more seriously. We gave him an opioid for his pain, and, slowly, the pain in his finger improved.
We’re taught in medical school not to undertreat pain, yet we do it too often in our zeal to not promote addiction. But many people who misuse opioids started out seeking pain treatment. We’re not doing enough, but what more can we do?
Don’t get me wrong. We absolutely need to continue to ask questions. We need to be more responsible when we prescribe these powerful drugs. And, yes, we need to remain vigilant for any signs of drug-seeking behavior.
That said, we have to be a little more trusting of our patients when it comes to their pain. Getting better control of their pain may help them recover faster and stay healthier longer.
A few weeks later, my patient was back. He was still in pain, and this time, he let my team do a thorough work-up. It turned out he now had a serious bone infection that was going to be difficult to treat.
True pain, it turns out, never lies.
Kunal Sindhu is a fourth-year medical student at Brown University Alpert Medical School.