Addiction in Appalachia

Appalachian communities are among the hardest hit by the national opioid addiction epidemic. According to the Centers for Disease Control, West Virginia has the highest rate of drug overdoses in the country. Opioids are killing 40 people per 100,000 that use them in West Virginia–a truly staggering number. Here on the ground in the Cabin Creek Clinics, nearly every patient we have seen has been directly touched by opioid addiction in some way. We hear about it every day.

So why has West Virginia been hit so hard by this crisis? And what are health leaders here doing about it?

Today’s opioid epidemic is, in part, an unintended consequence of providers trying to better serve their patients. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, there was a push to improve treatment of patients with pain. Pain became known as the “fifth vital sign”, and a whole generation of providers was schooled in this new understanding of pain. This, of course, had good intentions. As providers, we want to be able to do something to alleviate pain for our patients. At the same time as this push for better pain management began, however, several new opioid drugs hit the market. Purdue Pharmaceuticals released OxyContin in 1996, billing it as a safer and less addictive opioid. This perfect storm of more varied and widely-available opioids entering the market (marketed aggressively as less-addictive and safer), and a call to more thoroughly treat pain or be seen as doing a disservice to your patient, is likely one of the primary reasons for the opioid epidemic. Today, more than a third of Americans are prescribed painkillers every year. Once a patient is hooked on these addictive meds (and they are highly addictive, despite misleading advertising from the drug companies), they often have to turn to buying opioids on the street to sustain their habit. It’s expensive to buy pills, so many switch to heroin. In most places, heroin goes for next to nothing–less than the cost of a six pack of beer. The rest, as the say, is history.

Much of the primary industry here in West Virginia is highly physical, dangerous work. Coal mines, oil rigs, and agriculture jobs often lead to injuries and physical aches and pains. These jobs can also be isolating and stressful. Many in these industries are considered working poor, living paycheck to paycheck under constant mental and emotional strain. Opioids don’t just help physical pain. They tend to numb the emotional and mental pain, too. In a place like Appalachia, for a myriad of reasons, there is plenty of all these kinds of pain to go around.

Most experts agree that addiction is a mental illness. Once someone is addicted, they will always have that addiction. So what can be done to help these folks break the habit?

Here in Cabin Creek, providers combine Medication Assisted Treatment or MAT, with an extensive behavioral health program. The MAT clinic, located in Kanawha City, provides methadone, suboxone, subutex and vivitrol to patients who are addicted to opioids. These medications help reduce cravings for opioids, which allows patients to remain in treatment and reap its benefits. Patients are required to attend weekly individual and group therapy to remain in the program. Therapy is key–the medication can treat the symptoms of addiction, but therapy helps people deal with the emotional and mental pain that keeps them using.

Many providers in primary care, including those at Cabin Creek, have pledged a more mindful approach to pain management, prescribing only short courses of opioids when absolutely necessary for trauma, and turning to other methodologies such as PT, massage, or NSAIDS for other types of pain. Further, Cabin Creek clinics are slowly weaning patients who have inappropriately been prescribed opioid pain medication, off of them and employing more proven modalities. This is a long and arduous process, but Cabin Creek clinicians believe it is critical to prevent potential addiction and abuse. Treating patients in a fast-paced clinic often means you only have time to prescribe a pill and send folks on their way. The opioid crisis is forcing prescribers to step back and reassess the long term damage they may be doing to their patients with this approach.

At Marshall Medical School here in West Virginia, medical students are receiving 30 hours of content on pain management in their first two years of medical school. Faculty believes that the earlier the exposure the better, and that the more providers understand the impact of opioids and see that impact in their training, the better able they will be to serve patients in this area.

I, for one, know that the West Virginia Cabin Creek rotation has given our group a first hand look in to this crisis. Several of us have actually gotten to work in the MAT clinic and see what these patients are going through. Pain is an issue for patients in every setting. We need to remain current on the evidence for how best to treat each condition, and remember the far reaching affects our choices will have.

West Virginian Word of the Day:

Pepperoni Roll (n.): A distinctly West Virginian food made of a soft white roll with pepperoni baked in the middle. It is the unofficial state food, found across the state, especially in convenience stores.

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