Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

Tag: opioids

Tom Petty OD’d On Fentanyl. And Other Drugs.


Some people think fatal ODs have nothing to do with pain management—they think virtually all people who OD either bought street drugs or stole from other people’s prescriptions (“Medical use surely increased access to the drugs—but the people who got hooked tended to do so while using medication that was either prescribed for someone else or otherwise distributed illegally”). But damn, we keep hearing stories that show this is not true.

For every prominent person whose opioid abuse started with real pain, you can bet there are hundreds or thousands of people whose names have not been on marquees who started abusing drugs while seeking relief from what has increasingly become known, in coverage of the opioid problem, as “legitimate pain.”

The Los Angeles medical examiner today announced autopsy results for Tom Petty, who was found dead last fall: it was found that he died of a heart attack caused by an accidental drug overdose. His body had traces of three different kinds of fentanyl—which seems to be ubiquitous in ODs involving opioids, particularly heroin, these days, and which was prescribed to Petty for pain—and also oxycodone (the drug in OxyContin) as well as two different benzodiazepines (Xanax and Restoril).

As they used to say when I was a kid: Enough drugs to kill a horse. 

And a doctor (or doctors) prescribed them all.

He also smoked (see “emphysema” below). If he also drank, that would further have taxed his body’s ability to detoxify itself.

Petty’s wife and daughter issued a statement saying that Petty

suffered from many serious ailments including emphysema, knee problems, and most significantly a fractured hip. . . . Many people who overdose begin with a legitimate injury or simply do not understand the potency and deadly nature of these medications.

Which means it’s entirely appropriate that doctors’ prescribing practices should be more closely monitored. And doctors themselves—even pain specialists—need to get better education, especially in communicating with patients about real-life limitations.

Petty’s wife and daughter further said:

Despite this painful injury he insisted on keeping his commitment to his fans and he toured for 53 dates with a fractured hip and, as he did, it worsened to a more serious injury.

Sounds to me like a commitment not to his fans but to his ego. If he had been committed to his fans, he would have put his health first, so he could be alive today.

And maybe the doctors were a bit starstruck, too. Prince and Michael Jackson had the same problems: chronic pain that led to addiction, and doctors who fed their weaknesses.

“First doing no harm” in such cases would be to tell the patient that he has to quit smoking, and he Has To Stop Fucking Touring. Period.

Tackling the Difficult Problem of Prescription Opiate Misuse

Doctors at Georgetown School of Medicine and Mt. Sinai Hospital in Toronto have published a good editorial in the Annals of Internal Medicine about the need for better strategies to identify and prevent chronic pain patients from abusing opiate drugs.

Two strategies are currently being used:

1. The pain-patient contract, which basically requires patients to agree to consult only with that doctor (preventing doctor-shopping) and to adhere to the dosing schedule set up by the physician (i.e., not buy extra drugs off the street; not steal drugs or forge prescriptions; etc.). As if an addict in the throes of obsession would suddenly remember, “Oh right!—I signed that contract months ago (where did I put it again?), I CAN’T take those extra drugs.” If physicians think this piece of paper would prevent a pain patient from becoming addicted, then physicians do not understand addiction.

2. The urine drug-screen, which I always thought tested for drugs other than those prescribed (my doctor told me so), but maybe it measures for heightened drug-levels? To tell you the truth, I don’t know what the urine drug-screen does.

And the authors don’t know either—they say there’s little evidence that either of these tools does any good, and in fact they may create more stigma for pain patients without addiction problems who need pain treatment and don’t want to prove they’re not addicts by peeing into a cup every month.

One problem is the medical establishment/industry’s inability to define “addiction.” Even the panel rewriting the DSM V can’t figure out how to define it. The doctors write:

To paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, although drug misuse and addiction are difficult to define, we all assume that we will know them when we see them. This attitude has had a devastating effect on clinical practice and research at the interface of pain and addiction.

They’re talking about that old standard about the meaning of pornography: “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.”

They add that a recent review on the safety of the use of opiates to manage chronic non-cancer pain noted the scarcity of addiction-related data and concluded that if there was no data, then addiction must not have been a problem. The editorial argues that addiction is a big problem that has remained hidden because of difficulties in diagnosing it when it intersects with pain management. We all know a junkie when we see her on the street, right?—but it’s harder to recognize the addict in the doctor’s office because she’s, like, not begging for money.

I know my doctor thought I had some kind of “problem” with my drugs. I think she lacked the tools to diagnose and treat me definitively, as an addict. She sends the people she thinks are “real addicts” to the psychiatric hospital. I don’t think she wanted to do that to me, however much I deserved it, and for that I am grateful to her. She was willing to help me taper, but instead I hired a detox doctor. He was what I needed. I could never taper off a full-agonist.

If you were on a panel advising these doctors, what strategies would you give them to identify the addicts in their offices?

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