When Is a Pain Doctor a Drug Pusher?
Ronald McIver is a prisoner in a medium-security federal compound in Butner, N.C. He is 63 years old, of medium height and overweight, with a white Santa Claus beard, white hair and a calm, direct and intelligent manner. He is serving 30 years for drug trafficking, and so will likely live there the rest of his life. McIver (pronounced mi-KEE-ver) has not been convicted of drug trafficking in the classic sense. He is a doctor who for years treated patients suffering from chronic pain. At the Pain Therapy Center, his small storefront office not far from Main Street in Greenwood, S.C., he cracked backs, gave trigger-point injections and put patients through physical therapy. He administered ultrasound and gravity-inversion therapy and devised exercise regimens. And he wrote prescriptions for high doses of opioid drugs like OxyContin.
McIver was a particularly aggressive pain doctor. Pain can be measured only by how patients say they feel: on a scale from 0 to 10, a report of 0 signifies the absence of pain; 10 is unbearable pain. Many pain doctors will try to reduce a patient’s pain to the level of 5. McIver tried for a 2. He prescribed more, and sooner, than most doctors.
Some of his patients sold their pills. Some abused them. One man, Larry Shealy, died with high doses of opioids that McIver had prescribed him in his bloodstream. In April 2005, McIver was convicted in federal court of one count of conspiracy to distribute controlled substances and eight counts of distribution. (He was also acquitted of six counts of distribution.) The jury also found that Shealy was killed by the drugs McIver prescribed. McIver is serving concurrent sentences of 20 years for distribution and 30 years for dispensing drugs that resulted in Shealy’s death. His appeals to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit and the Supreme Court were rejected.
McIver’s case is not simply the story of a narcotics conviction. It has enormous relevance to the lives of the one in five adult Americans who, according to a 2005 survey by Stanford University Medical Center, ABC News and USA Today, reported they suffered from chronic pain — pain lasting for several months or longer. According to a 2003 study in The Journal of the American Medical Association, pain costs American workers more than $61 billion a year in lost productive time — and that doesn’t include medical bills.
Contrary to the old saw, pain kills. A body in pain produces high levels of hormones that cause stress to the heart and lungs. Pain can cause blood pressure to spike, leading to heart attacks and strokes. Pain can also consume so much of the body’s energy that the immune system degrades. Severe chronic pain sometimes leads to suicide. There are, of course, many ways to treat pain: some pain sufferers respond well to surgery, physical therapy, ultrasound, acupuncture, trigger-point injections, meditation or over-the-counter painkillers like Advil (ibuprofen) or Tylenol (acetaminophen). But for many people in severe chronic pain, an opioid (an opiumlike compound) like OxyContin, Dilaudid, Vicodin, Percocet, oxycodone, methadone or morphine is the only thing that allows them to get out of bed. Yet most doctors prescribe opioids conservatively, and many patients and their families are just as cautious as their doctors. Men, especially, will simply tough it out, reasoning that pain is better than addiction.
It’s a false choice. Virtually everyone who takes opioids will become physically dependent on them, which means that withdrawal symptoms like nausea and sweats can occur if usage ends abruptly. But tapering off gradually allows most people to avoid those symptoms, and physical dependence is not the same thing as addiction. Addiction — which is defined by cravings, loss of control and a psychological compulsion to take a drug even when it is harmful — occurs in patients with a predisposition (biological or otherwise) to become addicted. At the very least, these include just below 10 percent of Americans, the number estimated by the United States Department of Health and Human Services to have active substance-abuse problems. Even a predisposition to addiction, however, doesn’t mean a patient will become addicted to opioids. Vast numbers do not. Pain patients without prior abuse problems most likely run little risk. “Someone who has never abused alcohol or other drugs would be extremely unlikely to become addicted to opioid pain medicines, particularly if he or she is older,” says Russell K. Portenoy, chairman of pain medicine and palliative care at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York and a leading authority on the treatment of pain.
The other popular misconception is that a high dose of opioids is always a dangerous dose. Even many doctors assume it; but they are nonetheless incorrect. It is true that high doses can cause respiratory failure in people who are not already taking the drugs. But that same high dose will not cause respiratory failure in someone whose drug levels have been increased gradually over time, a process called titration. For individuals who are properly titrated and monitored, there is no ceiling on opioid dosage. In this sense, high-dose prescription opioids can be safer than taking high doses of aspirin, Tylenol or Advil, which cause organ damage in high doses, regardless of how those doses are administered. (Every year, an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 Americans die from gastrointestinal bleeding associated with drugs like ibuprofen or aspirin, according to a paper published in The American Journal of Gastroenterology.)
Still, doctors who put patients on long-term high-dose opioids must be very careful. They must monitor the patients often to ensure that the drugs are being used correctly and that side effects like constipation and mental cloudiness are not too severe. Doctors should also not automatically assume that if small doses aren’t working, that high doses will — opioids don’t help everyone. And research indicates that in some cases, high doses of opioids can lose their effectiveness and that some patients are better off if they take drug “holidays” or alternate between different medicines. Pain doctors also concede that more studies are needed to determine the safety of long-term opioid use.
But with careful treatment, many patients whose opioid levels are increased gradually can function well on high doses for years. “Dose alone says nothing about proper medical practice,” Portenoy says. “Very few patients require doses that exceed even 200 milligrams of OxyContin on a daily basis. Having said this, pain specialists are very familiar with a subpopulation of patients who require higher doses to gain effect. I myself have several patients who take more than 1,000 milligrams of OxyContin or its equivalent every day. One is a high-functioning executive who is pain-free most of the time, and the others have a level of pain control that allows a reasonable quality of life.”