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It can happen to anyone – anytime. We are all just one accident away from becoming addicted to painkillers – opioids. Opioid addiction usually starts innocently. Someone is injured, the physician writes them a prescription, they use the medication and the cycle begins. One prescription becomes another and one day you realize you must have the drug to fight the pain and more important, to satisfy the cravings for that “feeling” the drug gives you.
The opioid misuse epidemic took us by surprise. Miracle painkillers were silently tearing lives and families apart. Trusted physicians were abusing their patients with too many prescriptions, often unknowingly. Good people were finding themselves in the clutches of an addiction we knew little about. Before we could react as a health care community, the addiction had seized some of our finest loved ones. The death toll is astounding. And now, Oklahoma is at the epicenter trying to save our people and our nation.
We wish we had known then – so much of what we know today. The pain is still very real, but we are learning new ways to face the pain. Taking painkillers is still a good short-term option for many patients as physicians are implementing better ways to prescribe and monitor these drugs. However, patients are learning new methods for coping with their pain with physical interventions such as yoga and Tai Chi. Both of these physical exercises have a key element of what addiction specialists call “mindfulness” - emotional interventions to change the way the brain perceives pain.
Meditation is the formal practice of mindfulness. Stay with me here – brain scans confirm that a person in meditation has a significant decrease in pain reception. Prayer is another powerful form of mindfulness. Mindfulness is the idea of living in the moment, not living in the fear or anxiety of what could happen.
Individuals and families trying to cope with opioid addiction face another formidable enemy. An enemy that lives next door or works in the next office or finds themselves reading this article. The enemy is stigma – a sense of disgrace and blame associated with abusing any kind of drug. Those impacted feel others are judging them and condemning them for the addiction - so they retreat in embarrassment. This stigma prevents people from admitting their problem and seeking help. They are too ashamed to tell their family or even a doctor about the continued pain, about their need for more drugs and about the shambles their life has become.
We are opening a community conversation about the opioid abuse epidemic to fight this stigma with education and information about new solutions for chronic pain. Standing up with these individuals and their families, along with health care experts in addiction, mental health, pain management, civic leadership, law enforcement and government policy makers -- to impact a real difference. The OSU Center for Wellness & Recovery has gained a national reputation in the battle against opioid use disorder and we are enlisting Oklahoma communities to join us. The first week in August we will be in Duncan to open this conversation with you. Go to health.okstate.edu/cwr to learn more.