Washington DC (May 16) – The opioid epidemic is a devastating and complex problem. The National Institute on Drug Abuse has reported that over 53,000 people died in 2016 from opioid overdose—a 32 percent increase from the previous year. In response to these increasingly alarming statistics, in the Fall of 2017 the White House declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency. Chief among the opioid abuse factors that the administration cited was chronic pain management and the culture of overprescribing opioids.

In a new policy paper, R Street Senior Fellow and Harm Reduction Policy Director, Carrie Wade and University of Minnesota Director of the Center for Pain Research, Cory J. Goracke-Postle examine chronic pain management and today’s opioid crisis. They go on to make the case for harm reduction strategies aimed at chronic pain management in the midst of the opioid epidemic.

The paper argues that proper chronic pain management must not only remain a priority, but also that opioid use is often essential and appropriate during treatment. In fact, measures to reduce opioid prescriptions are likely to put chronic pain patients at risk of improper or inadequate pain management, which could exacerbate the opioid epidemic in other ways, such as illicit drug use in pursuit of pain relief.

The complexity of the opioid epidemic means that solutions that take a singular approach are likely to fail. Thoughtful, data-driven harm reduction approaches for opioid use in the treatment of chronic pain likely offer more realistic solutions. Indeed, the paper concludes, “with strategic design and implementation, harm reduction strategies hold promise to have a significant positive impact when applied to the use of opioids in the treatment of chronic pain.”