America’s opioid crisis is getting worse. The role of prescription opioids has both the medical establishment and the government justifiably worried.

In response, the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine released an official report on the crisis earlier this year. And, on September 21, the National Academy of Medicine released a special publication calling clinicians to help combat the crisis.

As a bioethicist working on the ethical and policy issues regarding prescription opioids, I am grateful to the National Academy of Medicine for inviting me to serve on this publication’s authorship team, and for taking seriously the ethical component of the prescription opioid crisis. The opioid epidemic is shot through with ethical challenges.


There are many discussions we could have, but I will here focus on just one of them: the issue of morally responsible prescribing. Should prescription opioids be used at all? And if so, how? The question is obviously important for clinicians, but the rest of us — patients — should understand what our doctors and nurses owe us regarding our care.

Two public health crises

One of the central challenges of the opioid epidemic is figuring out how to respond without harming pain patients.

If opioids prevent significant suffering from pain, then the solution to the prescription opioid problem cannot simply be to stop using them. To do so would be to trade one crisis (an opioid crisis) for another (a pain crisis).

The data suggest, however, that pain patients’ interests will not always run counter to the goal of curbing the opioid crisis. The evidence favoring opioid therapy for chronic, noncancer pain is very weak, and there’s some evidence that opioid therapy can actually increase one’s sensitivity to pain.

Opioid therapy also comes with significant costs — the risk of addiction and the potential for drowsiness, constipation, nausea and other side effects.

As a result, more of the medical community is realizing that opioids are simply not good medications for chronic, noncancer pain. Getting patients off long-term opioid therapy may well improve their lives.

Should we use opioids at all?

It would be nice if we could simply stop using opioids. But the situation is rather more complicated than that.

Even if opioid therapy shouldn’t be first-line (or even second-line) treatment for chronic pain, that doesn’t mean that it won’t work for anyone. Patients are individuals, not data points, and risks of opioid therapy — as well as the risks of not providing pain relief — are not the same for everyone.

This is important because debilitating chronic pain can lead to a life that seems not worth living, and sometimes even to suicide. In the face of life-destroying pain, if we run out of other options, it’s not clear that we should avoid using a third-line treatment in the hopes of saving a life.

Those who have been on high doses of opioids for years or decades pose another serious challenge. Many of these patients are concerned about the backlash against opioids. Some believe that the opioids are saving their lives. Others may be terrified of going into withdrawal if their medication is taken away.

If we move away from opioid therapy too abruptly, physicians may abandon these patients or force them to taper before they are ready. Tapering, under the best of circumstances, is a long, uncomfortable process. If it’s badly managed, it can be hell. The health care system created these patients, and we don’t get to turn our backs on them now.


Finally, opioids are important medications for acute, surgical and post-traumatic pain. Such pain can require long-term treatment when a series of surgeries stretches out for months, or when a traumatic injury requires a long, painful recovery. In these cases, opioids often make life manageable.

Although calls to limit opioid prescriptions generally don’t target these patients, we might reasonably worry about shifting attitudes. If medical culture becomes too opioid-phobic, who will prescribe for these patients?

Responsible prescribing

Fighting the epidemic with nuance will require constant vigilance. In the new National Academy of Medicine publication, we suggest a number of ways that clinicians can work toward responsible prescribing and management of opioids.

In short, clinicians must prescribe opioids only when appropriate, employing nonopioid pain management strategies when indicated. Evidence supports the use of acetaminophen and ibuprofen, as well as physical therapy, exercise, acupuncture, meditation and yoga.

Clinicians must also be willing to manage any prescriptions they do write over the long term. And, at every stage, prescribers should collaborate with others as needed to ensure that patients receive the necessary care.

Although clinicians shouldn’t be “anti-opioid,” they should be justifiably wary of prescribing for chronic, noncancer pain. And when a prescription is appropriate, the clinician should not write for more than is needed.

Patients should go into opioid therapy with a rich understanding of the risks and benefits. They should also have a plan of care, including an “exit strategy” for getting off the medication.


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A role for nonclinicians?

The suggestions above may seem straightforward, and perhaps even obvious. So it’s important to point out that this work is time-consuming and sometimes — as in the case of high-risk patients — challenging. Counseling, advising and trying to avoid unnecessary opioid use is much more difficult than writing a quick prescription.

Although this difficult work is still the clinician’s responsibility, the rest of us can make it easier for them to do their job well. After all, no one likes to experience unnecessary pain. Our expectation of powerful pain relief is part of the cultural backdrop of the epidemic.

That expectation is going to have to change. Moderate acute pain from injury, dental procedures or whatever may have yielded a prescription for Percocet or Vicodin in the past. And when we are the ones in pain, we might still prefer that doctors hand out such medication like candy. But the opioid epidemic is teaching us that we don’t, in fact, want that to be clinicians’ standard practice. We shouldn’t demand exceptions for ourselves.

Travis N. Rieder, Ph.D., is a research scholar at the Berman Institute of Bioethics at Johns Hopkins University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

The Conversation

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  • I suffer from a degenerative disk disorder, I’ve had 4 back surgeries in 5 yrs and the 5th is being planned. I’ve had hardware put in and taken out I’ve had disks removed through my stomach and what they call a cage put in. I have real pain, opioid pain medicine is the only thing that gives me a little bit of my life back. I don’t misuse, abuse, sell or give away my pain medicine. I take monthly UA, reg pill counts, I comply in every way possible because I can’t lose my pain treatments, without them my life is useless. I’m a 54 yr old grandma that just wants to be ok. Thank you Gail

  • I had lumber fusion back surgery a few years ago. My back surgeon placed 4 titanium rods in disks L1-L5. I began seeing my Pain Specialist right after my lumbar fusion back surgery. I have taken oxycontin/oxycodone responsibly without any problems. My Pain Specialist requests random urine samples. I comply without hesitation. I need medication to function in my every day life. I’m a wife and a mom, I want to enjoy my life, do activities with them. How could you dictact what level of pain I’m feeling? Do you know anyone else with my condition? My medications were very effective changed my quality of life in a positive way. I’m in pain on a daily basis. Rain, snow, cold, all contribute to even more intense pain. Do you or anyone you know have to suffer this way like me? I also get injections in my back, chiropractic therapy, and massage for my back. I’m proactive doing every option available to help my treatment in pain management. Do you or anyone you know live their lives that way? When I do those meghods, I’m in pain during and after they are performed on me. I’m in chronis pain every single day. I see a psychiatrist and therapist regularly for many years. You can check all my medical records. I could also get you a copy of the x-ray of my low back, you could clearly see the 4 titanium rods placed in my spine. You can’t put me in the same statistics as the people that O.D’ed, it’s unethical. Society looks down on me like I’m a drug addict. My history will prove I’ve complied with everything my Pain Doctor has advised me to do. Every appointment I have they check what medications I’ve filled at yhe pharmacies. It includes all pharmacies in the US across the board. My Pain Specialist monitors my opiate intake very well. I will fight! Don’t judge society as a whole. Government Organizations have the capability and technology to accurately monitor and record every individual who takes opiates. There will be tragic suicide rates increasing due to patients not getting proper treatment for their conditions. Educate yourselves, do your research.

  • There are many afflicted with this monster called chronic pain. Very legitimate thought, this crisis. Who started it and why. Seems to be headed in a negative direction. American citizens in pain should not have to feel we are at the mercy of our own government. We speak of human rights. Do we not have the right to be treated so we can live with some dignity ?Seems like the decision has already been made. People can’t have any kind of quality live living in horrible pain ! This is wrong, we should not have to plead for pain medication. We have done nothing wrong , living in pain is not a choice, it’s a curse. End this war on pain patient’s and there doctors !

  • This “opioid crisis” really disgusts me. Who started it and why? well i’ll tell you. This all got started by drug addicts, drug abusers and drug dealers. They start this problem and the HONEST people that do not abuse their medication, and that have been prescribed opiates for legit pain, sickness, loss of limbs…….you name it, they get put under the microscope and get the fingers pointed their way. Then the doctor takes action and lowers their dose or takes them off the medication they have been on for years . People with legit pain, no history of abuse or have a certain medical condition (such as sickel cell disease) should not have to suffer and BEG the damn doctor for a medication or to be put back on a medication when they were taken off of it to be put on a trial of something else that they tell the doctor did not work for them!

  • When you’re in pian and you’ve tried everything under the sun and you get cut off because the wind starts to blow in the other direction you can get very worried. Chronic pain is a real problem and opioid meds work.

  • So why are doctors, big pharm, and politicians hiding the fact that acetaminophen is proving to be one of the most dangerous medications ever invented? And do they reasonably expect people suffering “narcotic level” chronic pain to stay within the iffy guidelines of using acetaminophen and ibuprofin “as directed”? This seems to me to be a fantasy level misdirection that will wind up causing even more deaths and higher medical costs in the future.

  • I have had 3 low back surgeies the 3rd having titanium rods and screws. I have had cervical fusion.. Elbow surgery to relocate nerve strand. My 3rd back surg was done in 2000. I have need prescribed 4 norco per day for last 4 yrs after my pain increased. This according to my pain managment doctor is moderate for my condition. I have only once asked for an increase and he wants to stay level… Ok… These 4 pills help me function and without i am in debillitating misery. If im addicted then so be it as without i cant have a quality of life and ill spend my days in misery watching cartoons whereas with pills i am active and they cut it enough that i continue being active. These 4 pills per day in NO WAY stop or eliminate my pain. I also use marijuana which in conjunction with norco i can reasonably get thruogh the day. My point is that patients like me are being stigmafied by others that abuse this medication for their high… Do not lump us that need this to function… I do not like the people that are drug seeking for fun at all and believe me… We legitimate ones are targets. I am on disability and when they find this fact out forst thing they ask is whT do you get for that? Disgusting.. So do we that use this legitimately deserve to be made out to be addicts because of ones that are? I even had mine stolen and left in pain yet my doc replaced them as i filed a police report. I inderstand the problem and it isnt legitimate patients. Norco works for me well.

  • Can some one explain me if since the beginning of treatment with opioid the reason was a conscious and knowledge doctor about pains on human suffering with health history, examinations at the patient in pains then why the system doesn’t go first over the patients emotional affections instead of pointing patients now as drug abuser without not even a sound or mention that opioid is a medicine has been defined as a trusted medication, medically tested plus approved in human being. If the term of “Drug abuse” is a generic term for the abuse of any drug, including alcohol and cigarettes.Why Patient’s are now dealing in pain’s and concerned without any emotional support about the newly news over opioid medicine and the systems behaviors but expecting and believe on marijuana, Opioid as a medicine has always slow down pains, pain do not go away completly but it’s a great pain relieve that also brough peace and hopes on keep patient in the waiting stage of find a cure or even die is never has being as medicines preferences but relief actions by doctors recommendations., I believe opioides relieve it does save lives sometimes the only door open is to attempt life into commit suicide . While this opioid process pass patients should not being through overwhelm into struggles of illness nor either ending into be pointed only as drug abusers but keep helping on patient into go in better quality of life.

  • You have got to be kidding me! It’s obvious that the person/s that drafted this has no idea what real pain is. I’d love to give them a neck full of nerve pain for just one day! And they call themselves doctors? They are clearly confused. Denying people medication to ease pain will lead to an explosion of heroin use and underground black markets. Is that stupid or what? Yes it is, very stupid I may add. It’s also rather cruel. I thought doctors were to help not punish!

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