“My husband served honorably, with pride and dignity, not to come home and die on the couch!”
Those were the tearful words of army specialist Scott McDonald’s widow in a special CBS report last September. After five tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, McDonald returned home with chronic pain and after one year overdosed on prescribed opioid painkillers. The coroner ruled the death accidental from overmedication. What can be done to prevent this from happening again?
I learned some startling facts about opioid painkillers from pain expert, Dr. Alex Cahana. He said it’s misleading to say that the opioids being prescribed for chronic non-cancer pain are safe and effective. Despite all the painkillers taken in America, Cahana believes we suffer more, not less, because of them. He said, “The more pills you find, the worse people will be.” And consider:
1. Americans represent less than 5% of the world’s population, yet we consume 80% of the world’s opioid painkillers.
2. Someone in America dies every 20 minutes from painkiller overmedication.
3. Painkiller addiction contributes to the rising number of newborns tragically addicted every year.
The 2012 healthcare movie Escape Fire illustrates Cahana’s point. The film follows the return of Sgt. Robert Yates from the war in Afghanistan. Suffering from battle injuries, Yates relates his tortured experience with painkillers:
“When you’re injured, they feed you, feed you, feed you, feed you. All this stuff. It’s addictive. It’s so addictive. I would rather be shot again than go through withdrawals of coming off that medicine. No soldier should have to go through this.”
The call for alternative ways to relieve pain is growing.
The U.S. military, for one, seems open and receptive to new ideas, and Army doctors are now asking for training in new ways to manage pain besides using narcotics. A Yale study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine also concluded,
“The ﬁndings in this review suggest that clinicians should reconsider treating chronic back pain with opioid medications, and consider other treatments…”
I asked Escape Fire co-director Matt Heineman his thoughts concerning non-drug alternative treatments. He replied:
“There are spiritual aspects that aren’t recognized in traditional medicine. Look at Dr. Ornish and his work with Pulitzer Prize winner Dr. Blackburn. There is a growing body of evidence that the more amorphous treatments need to be recognized.”
Our thinking can help reduce or eliminate the pain we experience.
In a New York Times article, writer Melanie Thernstrom described a study by Dr. Jon-Kar Zubieta where 14 men were injected with a painful saltwater solution in their jaw. They were then given a placebo that they were told would relieve their pain. “The men immediately felt better.”
Many other placebo studies have shown that our thoughts and belief can have a significant impact on our health. For instance, it’s been shown that mental distraction, meditation, and laughter can help to reduce pain.
The most widespread non-drug treatment involving thought and belief is prayer. There are different methods on how best to pray and none lends itself easily to clinical study, but some believe the evidence that prayer works is increasing.
A case of complete recovery from chronic pain is recounted by a woman named Caryl Farkas. Farkas had learned about the unique healing method of Christian Science as a child. After exhausting medical options and feeling hopeless, she writes that she recalled the prayer that had worked in her youth and soon felt “an overarching, spiritual sense of love” which brought lasting relief.
Before the 1990s, doctors shunned opioids because they were addictive. Perhaps they had it right. My heart and prayers go out to Scott MacDonald’s family and all those suffering and touched by painkiller addiction. I hope the army doctors asking for new treatments will soon find what they need.