Born for Love

Empathy, the Brain, and Human Connections

Chronic Pain and Empathy

Opioid addiction risk without past drug history is between 0.3 and 3%.

In today's Time Magazine online, I look at new research on the use of opioids in the treatment of chronic pain. In fact, one of the things that got me interested in writing about empathy was the problem of untreated chronic pain- and the way that efforts to prevent addiction can interfere with our compassion for the suffering.

As I note in the article, the actual risk of addiction during pain treatment for most patients-who are middle aged and have no history of addiction-is between less than one third of a percent and 3%, according to the research. So why do so many people think the risk of addiction from taking these drugs is much higher?

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Mainly, it's because addicts go where the drugs are-and so, if they can get them from doctors, they will. And, because doctors tend to have compassion for patients-and there's no objective way to measure pain-they will sometimes be fooled by those who are faking.

Some of those people will even later claim that the doctor turned them into an addict! Research finds, however, that 80% of people misusing the painkiller Oxycontin have also taken cocaine. Unless you want to believe that granddad decided to try coke when he realized how great Oxy was and went off to find a connection, prior history of drug problems is a better explanation for most patients' drug problems than addiction caused by pain treatment.

This tendency to falsely blame doctors for addiction problems is linked to empathy, too-or rather, lack of it. If we had more empathy for addicts-most of whom are trying to cope with serious psychological pain-there would be much less shame attached to the condition and much better treatment. Under those circumstances, perhaps they wouldn't feel compelled to explain their behavior as the innocent result of getting pain treatment- and pain patients would be able to get better care, too.


Maia Szalavitz has published five books and written for The New York Times, Time magazine online, New Scientist, Psychology Today, and other major publications. more...

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