Health

Saying ‘So Long’ to Pain Meds for Real

Downward spiral from injury to dependence to crisis can be halted and reversed — here's proof

Meghean Rosenbach suffered a compromising back injury at age 27 while working with a student at the Anderson Center for Autism in New York City. “He was 10 years old and 200 pounds and didn’t know his own strength,” said Rosenbach. After that, she couldn’t perform any basic living skills — laundry, dishes, cooking.

She suffered debilitating and chronic pain that remained unchecked by surgery. She was in such intense pain that she lay in bed — virtually unable to move.

Doctors prescribed her a hefty cocktail of prescription drugs, including Vicodin and muscle relaxers. “Due to my chronic pain and then trying to deal emotionally with stopping my career and nursing degree, I began mixing drugs with alcohol,” she said.

She developed opioid dependence quickly. After that, she worked hard to claw her way back. Rosenbach said that finally, “Something clicked. I went into my doctor’s office with a grocery bag full of medication and two bottles of Vodka and said, ‘I don’t want these meds, and I don’t want this liquor.'” But her back pain remained.

[lz_bulleted_list title=”Rise in Prescription Drug Misuse” source=”http://www.drugabuse.gov”]Unintentional overdose deaths involving opioid pain relievers have more than quadrupled since 1999 and have outnumbered those involving heroin and cocaine since 2002. [/lz_bulleted_list]

“I tried to manage my pain without any kind of medication at all,” she said. For two years, she went on and off different medications, hoping to regain some autonomy in her life.

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This year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidelines on opioid prescription and pain management. Patients with chronic pain account for 70 percent of the opioids prescribed in the U.S., and the CDC now recommends opioids no longer be considered a first-option treatment for chronic pain. Instead, the group recommends anti-inflammatory drugs, exercise, and cognitive therapy. When physicians do deem it necessary to prescribe opioids, they should begin with the lowest possible dose and schedule frequent follow-up visits.

Related: Question All Those Lower Back Pain Tests

Rosenbach found a new type of procedure performed by Dr. Ken Hansraj, chief of spine surgery at New York Spine Surgery and Rehabilitation Medicine. Hansraj believes in treating the whole patient. He told Rosenbach on her first visit, “I’m going to work just as hard for you as you work for me.”

He encouraged her to take realistic steps to lose 100 pounds, since she weighed in at 276. “He was realistic about it and gave realistic goals,” Rosenbach remembers.

He encouraged her to lose one or two pounds a week, and when the year was done, she would have met her goal. So she began riding a bike a couple of times a week and trying to get more exercise. He also told her, “‘As long as you’re willing to do it, I’m going to do it with you.’ Both of us were losing weight,” she remembered. “He was going to the gym and he was working out. He had his own goals.”

Related: Opioid Addiction in the Spotlight

Rosenbach lost 105 pounds, and Hansraj performed surgery on her to re-form the fusion that had broken in her back. He removed the hardware from her back and used her own stem cells from her pelvic bone to help the tissue heal. The results changed her life.

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The first time she had spinal fusion, “It was the most painful surgery I had ever experienced in my life,” Rosenbach said. “But the same day I had surgery, [Hansraj] had me up and walking around.” She requested a longer stay in the hospital for her own safety but could have gone home two days afterward.

“If somebody had asked me 10 years ago, ‘Think you’re going to be walking and functioning, cooking meals, cleaning your house?’ I would have said no. Now I’m able to do all of that for myself.”

She no longer requires narcotics to manage her pain. Hansraj adjusted her medication after surgery so she was able to overcome her dependence — and get back to a life unmarred by discomfort and hard drugs.

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