On July 26, Todd Graham, 56, a well-respected rehabilitation specialist in Mishawaka, Indiana, lost his life. Earlier that day, a woman complaining of chronic pain had come to Graham's office in hope of receiving an opioid such as Percocet, Vicodin, or long-acting OxyContin. He reportedly told her that opioids were not an appropriate first-line treatment for long-term pain—a view now shared by professionals—and she, reportedly, accepted his opinion. Her husband, however, became irate. Later, he tracked down the doctor and shot him twice in the head.
This horrific story has been showcased to confirm that physicians who specialize in chronic pain confront real threats from patients or their loved ones, particularly regarding opioid prescriptions. But Graham's death also draws attention to another fraught development: In the face of an ever-worsening opioid crisis, physicians concerned about fueling the epidemic are increasingly heeding warnings and feeling pressured to constrain prescribing in the name of public health. As they do so, abruptly ending treatment regimens on which many chronic pain patients have come to rely, they end up leaving some patients in agonizing pain or worse.
Last month, one of us was contacted by a 66-year old orthopedic surgeon in Northern California, desperate to find a doctor for herself. Since her early 30s, Dr. R suffered from an excruciating condition called Interstitial Cystitis (IC). She described it as a "feeling like I had a lit match in my bladder and urethra." Her doctor placed her on methadone and she continued in her medical practice on a relatively low dose, for 34 years. As Dr. R told one of us, "Methadone has saved my life. Not to sound irrational, but I don't think I would have survived without it." Then a crisis: "Unfortunately for me, the feds are clamping down on docs prescribing opiates. My doctor decided that she did not want to treat me anymore, didn't give me a last prescription, and didn't wait until I found another pain doctor who would help me." For the past 30 years, Dr. R has been an advocate for better treatment of IC and reports "many suicides in the IC patient population due to the severity of the pain."