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The Boston Globe

Magazine

Perspective

An epidemic of chronic pain

The crackdown on prescription drug abuse is treating the wrong problem.

Eighteen years ago, when she was in her early 30s, Cindy Steinberg severely injured her back at work when an unsecured filing cabinet and the cubicle walls stacked behind it fell on her. Although the diagnosis for the product development manager at a learning-technology company just outside Harvard Square was torn ligaments and damaged nerves — between thoracic disc levels 7 and 10 — it took five years for doctors to find an effective combination of treatments for her chronic pain, including an opioid pain reliever called Lortab, which is similar to Vicodin. “I was in total disbelief that I could be in this much pain and there wasn’t anyone or anything that could really help me,” says Steinberg. Doctors treated her in a “demeaning, disbelieving, dismissive, and distrustful” manner, she adds.

This dismissive attitude toward pain patients — an attitude held not just by some doctors but also by the public at large — has only gotten worse in recent years, thanks in large part to relentless publicity of cases involving illegal abuse of opioids (also known as narcotics). To put it bluntly, chronic-pain patients all too often are seen as potential drug abusers first and as suffering human beings second.

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