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Opioid patients believe crackdown is making their conditions harder to treat

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PUEBLO -

Stephen Smith simply cannot stay still.

He has a rare condition commonly known as restless leg syndrome.

"Your body basically starts telling you, you have to move, and like right now, I can kind of force it down but there's sort of a growing pressure and if I don't do something to move to reduce that pressure, then eventually, unconsciously I will have a violent muscle reaction," said Smith.

For many years, Smith has dealt with his condition in trying to treat it with different types of medications, including some that are popular for treating symptoms for Parkinson's Disease.

But after slowly increasing the doses over the course of several years, those stopped working for him too he said.

"The Parkinson's drugs had turned on me and were actually making things far worse, at that point, the only other medications that are available are all opioids," said Smith.  "The one that is generally preferred because it has not only a longer action, but also helps a little bit on some of the Parkinson's side is Methadone, and so I was put on the smallest dose of methadone two years ago and I've been taking it ever since."

But Smith and some other patients who take opioids said the big nation-wide crackdown, while needed, is putting their health at risk and he feels abandoned by Southern Colorado doctors.

"The Pueblo doctors are not willing to accept me as a patient, at least I have not found one who is because of the fact that I am on a very low dose of opioids," said Smith.  "That dose is five to 10% of what they give chronic pain patients or to recovering addicts." 

Now, Smith is forced to drive to the University of Colorado Hospital in Aurora, Colo. for appointments and to fill his prescription.

Even when he is able to get the medication, he said the new, tighter regulations are a lot to deal with.

"Pill counting, where you can get a random call at any time and you have to take your bottle of pills to them within 24 hours so that they can count them to make sure that you're not selling them and I'm no more going to sell my pills because I have to have them anymore than a diabetic would be selling their insulin," said Smith.

Smith is not alone and joins many others who are in the same position.

One Pueblo man, who asked to remain anonymous, told News Five that he is being rejected medication that works for his back injury after a car accident 20 years ago because the insurance companies won't cover it.

"It started shortly after my accident which was about 20 years ago and I had back surgery after that and I was able to get off of the medication for a several months and my back was re-injured because it was not stable after the surgery," he said.  "My insurance company is refusing the medication that is a muscle relaxer and not even an opioid, it's just one that they deem as ineffective even though it has been effective and they are citing the reason that it does have the potential for being misused."

Physicians don't disagree that they are cracking down to get control of the epidemic, but realize now that many patients currently taking opioids for pain have other, safer options available to them.

"I can't emphasize the size of this epidemic that's going on, it's really big, it's going to get to the point where it exceeds the AIDS crisis, I mean the closest thing we'll get to is the 1918 flu basically," said Dr. Narayana Varhabhatla, who's a pain management physician at the University of Colorado Hospital. 
 
Doctors in the Emergency Department, which is now known to be the front lines of the opioid epidemic, said there are other medical alternatives to help manage pain.

"Ibuprofen and Tylenol, there's other things that are much more rare like Ketamine and Haldol which we're using for pain, then there's things like people are familiar with like Lidocaine which you use to numb your teeth, but we are putting that in IV's now to numb areas of pain," said Dr. Donald Stader, emergency department physician at Swedish Medical Center.

"Physical therapy is huge for a lot of people, back pain, knee pain and hip pain are three of the most common things that are going on so a lot of it has to do with being overweight, it's hard to lose weight when you're hurting," said Dr. Varhabhatla.

While many patients are turning to alternatives to pain medicines, they said most aren't working as well.

"Acupuncture, acupressure, massage, injections, surgery, inversion, I've had numerous different medications that are not opioids or medications specifically for pain."

"Without prescription access to opioids, quite honestly, all of my options are bad, going back to no lifestyle, going to street drugs, or what happens to a few of the more severe patients who have lost access, suicide, so none of those are really feasible," said Smith.

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