In the wake of the opioid crisis, medical professionals’ fears about prescribing opioid painkillers have risen — to the extent that some doctors have turned to “pain acceptance” as a treatment philosophy. But chronic pain patients are speaking out about how dangerous that could be for their quality of life.
On Monday, Vox published a podcast detailing how “pain acceptance” is “gaining traction” among American doctors as a response to the opioid epidemic. The movement is “kind of just what it sounds like,” said narrator Sarah Kliff, who lives with chronic pain herself. “It means asking patients to live with a certain level of pain — for months, years, or even for the rest of their lives.”
The podcast features Jane Ballantyne, a controversial doctor who champions pain acceptance. Kliff said that as Ballantyne watched problems from opioids, like the side effects and risk of addiction and dependence, grow, she started questioning the “assumption” in pain treatment that doctors should get their patients to zero pain, which is why they were prescribing opioids. Ballantyne wondered, what if we stopped aiming for zero?
“There are approaches that involve not becoming too focused on the pain, thinking of living with the pain rather than thinking you can’t live with the pain,” Ballantyne said.
Ballantyne acknowledged that she has been criticized for her philosophy, which she first wrote about in 2015.
“[The response] was so personally aggressive and showed such lack of understanding of what we were actually saying. It was interpreted as cruel and unsympathetic and you don’t understand what people are going through,” she said.
The podcast concluded with the stories of two chronic pain patients — one who had tried “pain acceptance” and experienced some success, and another who remained skeptical about the philosophy.
The podcast prompted a backlash from people with chronic pain, who argued that saying a level of chronic pain is “acceptable” essentially abandons chronic pain patients. Rather than tell them they need to accept their pain, they need more pain relief options, doctors who are willing to fight for them, and less stigma against using opioids responsibly.
Many pointed out that they’ve actually already accepted and learned to live with their pain (and even done the techniques Ballantyne suggests, like meditation and physical therapy), but that doesn’t mean they don’t still deserve help reducing their pain.