July 7, 2017

My Brother was Prescribed Opioids to Treat his Back Pain. The next week, He was found Dead.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” ~ Margaret Mead


I recently lost my younger brother as part of the opioid epidemic in North America.

My 24-year-old brother had a well-documented medical history of mental health issues and alcoholism, and yet, he was prescribed opioids by his family doctor to treat his chronic back pain.

The next week he was found dead.

The over-prescription of opioids and narcotics for chronic pain is something we need to educate ourselves about. Some of us are only familiar with this crisis due to news reports, while others have experienced it more intimately, with people we love becoming addicted or even dying.

In spite of new efforts and guidelines being put into place to curtail the over-prescription of opioids in the United States and Canada, they continue to be prescribed at higher rates than any country in the world.

It’s not really the dosages of opioids that are the problem. Rather, it’s the practice of using opioids for the treatment of chronic pain. We need to regulate and curtail this, as is done in other countries: Most only prescribe opioids after major trauma, post-surgery, or as end of life care for terminally ill patients.

Fentanyl, as well as other opioids illegally sold on the streets, have also played a huge role in the crisis.

After my brother’s death, I was told that the opioid epidemic has resulted in an 8 to 12-month backlog in the results of toxicology reports being sent out in the province of Alberta.

While the picture I have painted sounds grim, we are not helpless. Change begins with us, not just on relying on our governments and institutions to take appropriate measures. We can actually play an essential part of ending this crisis.

Here are some things we can do to help.

1. Educate ourselves about the risks of prescription opioids and narcotics.

Many of us may have a stereotypical image in our mind of what a drug addict looks like: young, hailing from a rough upbringing, mingling with shady associates to procure their substance of choice.

Opioid and narcotics abusers often defy the archetype of a typical addict. Suburban parents, mothers, fathers, grandparents, teenagers, athletes, working professionals—anyone who suffers from chronic pain or injury and seeks medical treatment from their doctor—are all potential addicts.

Few of us imagine an addict as someone who was merely following their doctor’s instructions.

Addiction isn’t the only risk, however. The possibility of injury and death due to overdose exists even from taking just a minor amount of many commonly prescribed medications. (Check this out for a visual of what that looks like.)

Even if we appear to be an appropriate candidate for these medications and understand the potential risks involved, mixing them with other medications—or with drugs or alcohol—can have deadly results.

Furthermore, our bodies build up a tolerance to opioids, so while someone who regularly takes them may be able to tolerate a certain amount, and perhaps may even be able to mix alcohol or drugs with them, another person could be fatally injured by that same amount or that same combination.

These medications should only be used carefully by the patient prescribed, not shared with others.

2. Research alternative chronic pain treatments.

Deterring people from taking opioids is not in any way meant to downplay the impact of chronic pain. Those of us who suffer from it know that it can significantly diminish our quality of life, as its effects go far beyond the physical. For many of us, like my brother, chronic pain may result in the inability to pursue their job or studies, let alone an active lifestyle and healthy social life.

However, research shows that despite what pharmaceutical companies and their marketing departments would have us believe, opioids are not even that effective at managing chronic pain. 

There are numerous other types of medications available for doctors to prescribe their patients, as well as non-prescription options.

A lot of encouraging research is emerging about cannabidiol (CBD) products made from marijuana, such as CBD oil, to treat chronic pain. CBD products can be obtained with a medical marijuana prescription where applicable, and they are a much less risky option.

As constraints on marijuana research ease, we will likely see even more compelling benefits of using these products as alternatives to opioids.

Other research supports using physiotherapy, yoga, meditation, and lifestyle changes as means of managing chronic pain.

3. Talk to your loved ones to ensure they are aware of the risks, and encourage them to look into other options.

Even if we understand the risks of opioids, that does not mean everyone else does. Some of us may be completely uninformed, some of us may have unshakable faith in our doctors and are hesitant to question them, and others may be so desperate for pain relief that we will try anything the doctor recommends.

Opioids and narcotics become even more risky when prescribed to those suffering from other addictions and/or mental health issues, as they may be more likely to accidentally or purposefully misuse them.

Ideally, our doctors should look at their patients’ health and medical history holistically, taking these things into consideration. If a doctor is not confident in a patient’s ability to take the drugs exactly as prescribed, they should not take the risk of writing that prescription.

But rather than waiting for a better system to exist, we can take action now. We can talk to our loved ones who suffer from chronic pain—I’m sure you know someone who is affected by this. We can help ensure that they are properly informed about the opioid epidemic and the risks of any drugs they might be prescribed, actively encouraging them to discuss other treatment options with their doctors.

By talking to our loved ones, we may discover that they have already been prescribed something that is unnecessary or even dangerous for them. By having these conversations, we have the opportunity to do our best to intervene and prevent our loved ones from becoming another statistic.

We do not need to wait for our governments and institutions to solve this crisis. We, as committed citizens, can play our part today. Empowering ourselves through awareness and action, being open to other treatment options, and asking good questions when it comes to our own pain management (and that of people we love) are all great places to start.



Author: Lana Gonzalez Balyk
Image: Carsten Schertzer/Flickr
Editor: Callie Rushton
Copy Editor: Yoli Ramazzina
Social Editor: Yoli Ramazzina


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Lana Gonzalez Balyk Jul 10, 2017 8:56pm

Thanks for your comment. He was perscribed a small dosage, however it was mixed with alcohol, which given his medical background of mental health issues, alcholism and addiction, there was a high chance he would not be able to follow the directions to safely take the medication. I outlined this in the article. His doctor had all that information. I imagine he was doing his best to try and be helpful, however he should have been better aware of the added risks in such situations. As I also mentioned in the article, people who take these medications longer build up a tolerance, and may be able to handle combining them with other drugs, but people who are new to them have no such tolerance and can accidently overdose. This article is addressing legally perscribed drugs, rather then illgeally purchased ones, and the possible effects they can have. That is a whole other issues that needs to be addressed. Some patients may not find relief with anything else and could have opioids as their only option. However many can find relief with other medications and methods, had they been encouraged to do so first. That is what this article is about. Having options, being educated, and if opioids are needed, then being the right candidate for these medications. Doctors need to be aware of these issues. This article is not intended to blindly blame doctors, some do take precautions, some do encourage other medications, some carefully explain the medications to their patients, however many do not have such training. If they do not, then that is where we can teach ourselves.

Eric Thiessen Jul 7, 2017 7:29pm

Sorry for your brother's death but, 1 + 1 doesn't equal 2 here. What was the dosage prescribed? If it were only a dozen or so 5 mg oxycodone tablets, that wouldn't necessarily kill him. There are thousands of people, if not more, who have the same issues that have successfully used opioids for over a decade or more. Blindly blaming the doctors for attempting to do their jobs by alleviating their patients' pain and trying to improve their quality of life is driven by attorneys who stand to profit from this combined with politicians who haven't bothered to try to separate the tragic deaths caused by fentanyl laced heroin from those caused by abusing prescription drugs. Is it the doctors' fault that some patients sell their meds to people to abuse them? Is it the drug manufacturers' fault that people seek and purchase their products illegally? No, it is the abusers' fault and clearly, given the increased usage of heroin (which is as much as 2/3's cheaper than oxys), they will take whatever they can get their hands on, ignoring the possibility of dying from an overdose...

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Lana Gonzalez Balyk

Lana Gonzalez Balyk lives in Calgary, Canada, with her husband and two cats, where she runs a small business. She focuses on the pursuits she loves: dance, yoga, reading, writing, travelling, vegetarian/vegan cooking, drinking tea, and enjoying the outdoors. Her background is in history and international development, which favours her pursuits.

She is involved in an exciting dance project, writing projects, and getting excited for summer to use the camper van her husband designed.

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