You could say that Herman Stanford has had a lot of bad luck when it comes to his health.
It started when he joined the Air Force right out of high school. Stanford was riding in an aircraft when the plane crash-landed.
"We landed much too fast and we rolled and rolled and rolled," said Stanford. "I got hurt everywhere."
That was the beginning of a long list of injuries and surgeries Stanford endured over his lifetime. He estimates he’s had well over two dozen surgeries in all. Now in his 70s, pain is a constant companion. As a result, he uses prescription painkillers and other therapies to find relief.
"The fact is, I feel guilty when I take it. But, you have two choices, take them or hurt like crazy," he added.
Many experts believe the addictive nature of prescription pain medication is feeding the deadly opioid epidemic. It's led to nationwide restrictions and crackdowns on providers accused of irresponsibly handing out alarming numbers of opioids. While that may weed out so-called pill mills, legitimate patients like Stanford can get caught in the crossfire.
Stanford says because of the current atmosphere surrounding pain management, he couldn’t find a doctor willing to treat him in his hometown. He now drives 100 miles to Baton Rouge once a month to see a board-certified interventional pain physician.
"Patients, all the time, they don't like having to come to a pain clinic because they feel like they're being stereotyped just coming here,” said Dr. Barrett Johnston, a physician.
Johnston, who holds two board certifications in anesthesiology and interventional pain medicine, said bad medical practices reflect poorly on all physicians. He added that while recent stricter government regulations aim to help curb the epidemic, it can make things more difficult for all providers. For example, he said as some pharmaceutical companies have cut back on production of opioids, it’s created a shortage of both oral medications and medications used in surgery.
"Medications we use in surgeries has been limited. We can't find some of the pain medication we use for pain management right now for post-op pain," Johnston explained.
According to Johnston, responsible pain management starts with a physician who is board certified and who looks at all options for pain treatment. It’s also vital that a clinic or provider follows all guidelines and standards for prescribing opioids.
Johnston explained that when a prescription is necessary, physicians can take extra measures to ensure patients aren't abusing their medication. For example, his clinic conducts drug tests, pill counts, and checks a statewide medical database to make sure a patient is not doctor shopping. He also said long-term opioid use is never the goal.
"If they come in on opioids, we are always looking to wean them or look for other therapy options other than just medications," Johnston added.
However, until the opioid crisis is solved, Johnston and Stanford both agree tighter restrictions and regulations are needed, even if that means they both endure a sometimes stinging stigma.
"That's what I have to do because that's what I have to do to get by," said Stanford.
Stanford added he also uses exercise to manage his pain and Johnston said if pain is an issue for you, your first step is talking to your primary care doctor.
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