Distinguishing Dependence From Addiction

Marie-Eileen Onieal, PhD, CPNP, FAANP wrote an editorial in the November 2016 issue of Clinician Reviews called the The Pain Paradox It touched a pain point with many readers. Here are substantial, articulate comments as to what the underlying problem is and how we can attempt to solve it.

Four years ago, I left my career at a large urban VA hospital due to cancer; residual effects of my treatment have prevented my return. I share this as it reflects my personal experience with pain management.

As a Certified Addiction Registered Nurse–Advance Practice, I worked in a substance abuse clinic for 15 years, providing everything from primary care to detoxification and opiate replacement maintenance. I also consulted on cases throughout the facility and advocated for patients with substance abuse histories in regard to care management concerns, including pain. I spent a great deal of time educating staff from all areas on proper care for patients with a variety of substance abuse and addiction concerns.

In order to better address the conundrum of appropriate pain management, a fine distinction needs to be made between dependence and addiction. Chemical dependence is a physiologic status and a medical diagnosis; reduction or discontinuation of a culprit drug will result in symptoms of physiologic withdrawal. Addiction, on the other hand, is a legitimate brain disease that might be better thought of as a mental health disorder. It manifests signs and symptoms very similar to those of chemical dependence.

Perhaps the distinction is best revealed by example: A 65-year-old woman who is on opioid-based pain management for two weeks due to a complicated orthopedic injury will need to be tapered off to avoid physiologic symptoms of withdrawal. Yet, she is not considered a drug addict.

The behavioral characteristics of addiction are familiar: drug-seeking, illicit use, presentation with unexplained withdrawal symptoms, etc. Additionally, process addictions involve the same neurochemical pathways as chemical addictions. When they abstain, gamblers, sex addicts, and television addicts manifest the same anxiety and psychologic or even physical symptoms of withdrawal. The pathophysiology of the addiction process is established in addiction medicine literature.

The problem is that this knowledge has not been extended to practice. In my experience, poorly managed pain has a much greater risk for unintended negative consequences than aggressive management with opiods and adjuncts in a patient with a history of heroin addiction. Pseudo-addiction is real, and patients present with signs and symptoms similar to those of addiction: demanding, making specific requests, history of multiple providers (doctor shopping), and elevated anxiety.

Anyone who has experienced poorly managed severe pain will share stories of the drive to get relief at almost any cost. These people are not drug addicts. They are patients in need of informed, aggressive, and compassionate care.

Fear-based inadequate pain management creates instability and desperation in patients. Their intensive search for relief is nothing but rational. A clinician’s withholding of adequate care due to social prejudice, fear (of the DEA), and/or ignorance in a field where knowledge and tools are widely available is bad care at best and negligent incompetence at worst. Ultimately, it is the patient who suffers the consequences.

The well-known but often denied chasm between medicine and mental health has gone on too long. Medical practitioners need to

  • Be better able to identify and distinguish between potential and current chemical dependence and true addiction.
  • Be willing to treat pain aggressively in patients with a known history of addiction in order to prevent relapse or exacerbation of their addictive use.
  • Develop a working knowledge of strategies to treat pain while minimizing risk for addiction and dependence.Commit to the intensity of practice that is required for effective pain management in any population.

Yes, my suggestions imply a labor-intensive approach. But there are no 20-minute appointments with a heroin addict. And time spent appropriately assessing patient risk for substance abuse, treating legitimate pain management needs, and intensively following up will reduce the medical and mental health costs associated with poorly managed pain in low-risk patients, and the hugely expensive and potentially tragic outcomes associated with poorly treated drug addicts.

L. Henry Beazlie, RN, CCRN, CARN-AP, MSN, MA (retired)

Akron, OH