By Beth Leipholtz
“It’s like cutting your arm off. It is really affecting my quality of life.”
While many view a decrease in opioid prescriptions as a positive, there are some who struggle to see the good.
One such person is Cindee Lee-Voeller. According to Iowa newspaper The Gazette, Lee-Voeller relies on oxycodone to relieve her chronic back pain, which stems from degenerative bone disease.
But because of the crackdown on opioid prescriptions, Lee-Voeller received her last 60 pills, which she refers to as “little pieces of gold,” at the beginning of April. Now, she is rationing them.
“Now I’m sitting here in pain, and I have to decide when is going to be a time I’m losing one more of that piece of gold,” she told The Gazette. “That’s my life. If they’re gone, I’m so screwed.”
Numerous factors have contributed to the opioid crisis, including “prescribing practices and a push from pharmaceutical companies,” The Gazette notes.
While the Iowa Department of Public Health does not have data specific to the opioid prescription rate in the state, the department’s Opioid Initiatives Director Kevin Gabbert says patients have reported that doctors seem to be taking steps to avoid prescribing opioids for chronic pain.
“It does indicate a shift because we never received those calls before,” he told The Gazette. “It’s a step in the right direction.”
However, this is an issue for people like 60-year-old Sharon Stakes of Cedar Rapids. Stakes is holding tight to her last three oxycodone pills, the last bottle of which she received in November. Stakes struggles with spinal pain as a result of a broken neck in 1999. She says when the pain comes, she is “as panicked as a person on fire.”
While Lee-Voeller and Stakes rely on opioids for pain, recent research makes the claim that opioids have no more of a long-term benefit than non-opioid painkillers.
“Eventually with opioids, if you keep taking them long-term, you will develop tolerance or you can be dependent on it,” Dr. Rahul Rastogi, director of pain medicine at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, told The Gazette. “So they are requiring more and more, but are not achieving the goal.”
For some, the pills are viewed as a necessity in order to perform everyday tasks. Maria Graham, 56, has been taking up to six hydrocodone tablets daily since 2010. She suffers from degenerative disc disease and says that without the pills, she struggles with activities like cooking or grocery shopping.
“It’s like cutting your arm off,” Graham said. “It is really affecting my quality of life.”
Dr. Monica Meeker, a Cedar Rapids physician, tells The Gazette that it’s normal for patients to experience discomfort when coming off opioids. She helps patients who shouldn’t have necessarily been given prescriptions to come off opioids.
“It’s not punishment, it’s not that I don’t believe they have pain—it’s that I want to earn their trust and I want to look at a different way of treating it,” Meeker said.
However, Stakes tell The Gazette that for some, like herself, opioids are the only treatment option that bring relief, so she will continue to advocate for opioid use in chronic pain conditions.
“I’m fighting for my life,” Stakes says.