How the Opioid Epidemic is Affecting People with Fibromyalgia

It’s hard to avoid the fact that the nation is in the midst of a major opioid epidemic, resulting in over 42,000 deaths in 2016. You hear about drug overdoses not only on the streets of big cities but even more often in small towns. Patients get addicted to opioid medications like Norco and Oxycontin. But when the supply of prescription drugs runs out, many turn to heroin to get the same relief. Or they may combine opioids with other drugs like Xanax, which slow down the breathing rate, which makes overdoses much more likely to happen.

Doctors are working to try to reduce these addictions and their tragic deaths by cracking down on opioid prescriptions. But the unintended additional result is that people who rely on opioids for managing chronic pain, including fibromyalgia patients, are being affected, too. Here’s what you need to know.

What’s Going on with the Opioid Epidemic?

The typical opioid-addicted patient looks different than how you might imagine a drug addict. Very few start out looking to get high from the medicine. Most are only looking for relief from pain and find that the medication actually works. Many people end up inadvertently addicted to opioid medications like Vicodin and Oxycontin after injuries or surgeries. Patients with fibromyalgia also get prescriptions for opioid pain relievers.

But doctors get a lot of scrutiny about how they prescribe opioids. Many doctors get nervous about prescribing opioids indefinitely. It only takes a couple weeks to become addicted to opioid medication. When doctors cut off the access to the medication, addicted patients can start to experience drug withdrawal. Many turn to illegal sources of the opioid medication, which may include prescription drugs bought on the black market. These drugs are not necessarily regulated by the FDA, so they may not contain the active ingredient. Illegal prescription drugs often contain powerful medications like fentanyl. Because fentanyl is so powerful, even very small amounts can cause fatal doses. Other patients turn to heroin instead. Any of the alternative options when patients run out of legitimate access to prescription drugs can result in overdose and death.

How the Opioid Epidemic Affects Patients

The Food and Drug Administration issued new prescribing guidelines earlier in 2018.  But in July, the FDA admitted some possible errors in calculating the number of people addicted to opioid medication. As a result, many people with serious conditions causing chronic pain lost access to the pain relief they needed. This includes many patients with fibromyalgia.

If you had a doctor who was prescribing opioid medication for you before, you may have found it difficult to get what you need. Many fibromyalgia patients report being suddenly limited to a much smaller amount of the medication. Others have found themselves completely without access, which can cause “cold-turkey” withdrawal symptoms.

Doctors now face serious consequences for prescribing opioids for chronic pain. Although most medical associations support the right to prescribe these medications, the FDA disagrees. Doctors who overprescribe opioids may be fined or even lose their medical licenses. The FDA and doctors’ associations are working together to review the prescribing guidelines for opioids. Fibro patients may have more access in the future to opioid pain relievers. But as it stands now, it will likely continue to be difficult to get them.

How to Get Pain Relief during an Opioid Epidemic

The FDA and a minority of medical doctors say that opioids aren’t an effective long-term pain management solution. Only terminal cancer patients have easy access to the medications since the risk of addiction is comparatively low. That leaves a lot of people with legitimate chronic pain without the relief they need.

Doctors may try to substitute alternative medications for pain relief. Some of the medication alternatives include non-narcotic pain relievers such as Tramadol or antidepressants like Cymbalta. However, many fibro patients have already tried these medications or may be using them along with opioids. Medical cannabis is also seen as an alternative.

Patients may try a variety of other options, including yoga, meditation, biofeedback, or writing in a journal. Some people find benefit from using essential oils. Those in states where medical marijuana is legal may try that as well. Most fibro patients have to combine a variety of strategies to get the relief they need.

A hallmark of fibromyalgia is always being in some degree of pain. Even when you have access to opioids, they still generally don’t provide complete relief. Rather than seeking out the few remaining doctors who may prescribe opioids, it may be best to find alternate coping mechanisms. Although they’re less than ideal, they don’t carry the same risk of addiction or accidental overdose. Fibro patients can still seek relief while staying safe from the opioid epidemic.