Science has the Answer to the Opioid Epidemic – Is anyone listening?

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The Federal government has spent billions of dollars on combating the opioid epidemic. In 2022, 1.5 billion dollars was allocated to enforcement and treatment. Yet the death toll climbed 85,000 deaths a year in 2022 to 110,000 in 2023. The estimated cost to the US economy was over 1.5 trillion dollars in 2020 alone.1 These are just numbers, and the level of suffering is immeasurable. In spite of intense focus, good intentions, and plenty of funding the problems are mounting. What is going on? We are not addressing the root cause – unrelenting anxiety. It is misclassified as a psychological issue, where it is actually a physiological state and the driving force.

Anxiety is the manifestation of flight or fight physiology (how the body functions). The sensation evolved to be incredibly unpleasant, as life forms that ignored these signals didn’t survive. Humans additionally possess language to label these sensations, “anxiety.” We will do anything to avoid it. Suppressing it has even more severe consequences with an increased chance of opioid craving2 and the hippocampus of the brain (memory center) shrinks.3 So, the only choice left is to mask it, which actually works – while you are masking. Opioids work well to diminish mental pain, as well as physical, and have been used for melancholy since ancient times.4



My perspective

Almost forty percent of my surgical practice was devoted to treating patients with infected spines from IV drug abuse. The problem arose from bacteria entering the blood from contaminated needles. The bacteria lodged in the disc space, which has a limited blood supply. Since there was no way out, the bacteria are trapped. This environment is ideal for growth and an abscess forms. Adjacent vertebrae are destroyed and break. Surgery entailed draining the infection and stabilizing the broken spine with screws, rods, and a fusion. These operations were complex, expensive, and risky. Occasionally, a patient would become paralyzed from the infection clotting off the blood supply to the spinal cord.

A minimum of six weeks in the hospital were required after surgery for IV antibiotics. I knew them well, and I learned some lessons from them.

  • He or she would often shake in bed from crippling anxiety, which worsened their pain.
  • Instead of increasing pain medications, anti-anxiety drugs were much more effective in lowering pain.
  • No one chooses to be an addict – no one. Addiction begins with a need to relieve mental or physical pain and then the drug itself has addictive qualities.
  • The destruction wreaked on every aspect of people’s lives is devastating.
  • Once he or she calmed down, conversations were much easier.

What’s currently being done?

We are currently approaching the epidemic from almost every possible wrong angle. Why is this happening?

  1. Not addressing the root cause

The biggest and most obvious problem is that modern medicine isn’t providing viable solutions to chronic mental and physical pain. We are focused on structural problems being the source of pain, and if we can’t find the “cause,” we just treat symptoms. Not addressing the root cause of a sustained flight or fight state, is a disaster. The reality is that everything is wrong in that every cell in your body is bathed in stress chemistry, on high alert, and your body breaks down.

  1. Inadequate training

Physicians are remarkably well-intentioned, work too hard, and enjoy seeing their patients improve. But our training is woefully inadequate and not connected to ongoing scientific advances. Recent neuroscience research has provided answers to chronic pain but the knowledge hasn’t penetrated into mainstream medicine. The current definition is that chronic pain is, “……an imbedded memory that becomes connected with more and more life experiences and the memory can’t be erased.”4  It’s a complex neurological problem and we are treating it as a structural issue. It can’t and doesn’t work.

Your doctor doesn’t have the correct tools to solve your chronic illnesses. Both patients and providers are frustrated. It affects the doctor/ patient interactions. About 20% of physicians are comfortable treating chronic pain, and only 1% enjoy it. Many patients in pain feel labeled and discriminated against by many physicians. They are correct. The labels include, “drug seeker”, “malingerer”, “have secondary gains”, “difficult”, “addict”,and the list is endless. Once you are labeled, the person who placed the label has lost awareness of who you are. They can longer hear important details to help you heal. When a patient pushes to be heard, the situation may become unpleasant.

Even worse, many of the “mainstream” interventions have been demonstrated in numerous research papers to be ineffective and often cause harm.5 Many proven effective treatments are not readily available because they are not covered by insurance plans.6  Why do you think we have such an epidemic of chronic if we were treating it correctly? A significant percent of a medical system’s revenue is driven by these expensive and risky interventions.

  1. Known data is ignored

Modern medicine is pretending to treat your chronic pain and is arrogant in dismissing deep research that reveals answers. A 2014 paper documented that only 10% of orthopedic and neuro spine surgeons are assessing and addressing the well-known risk factors for a poor surgical outcome prior to recommending surgery.7  You trust your doctor to implement a best practices approach and you’re repeatedly disappointed. With increasing frustration, your stress physiology remains elevated, and your pain worsens. Repeatedly dashing hopes also induces depression.8

  1. No one is listening

A safe trusting healing relationship with your doctor is at the core of care. Other treatments have limited benefit without it. Physiology shifts from threat to safety, which induces healing. With short visits and huge demands from the system (the business of medicine), your physician doesn’t have enough time to know you.9,10 Family, social, interpersonal, and work dynamics predictably overwhelm almost any treatment plan. Conversely, addressing these situational dynamics is a powerful way to enhance healing.



Chronic mental and physical pain is complex and layered on the uniqueness of each person. How can you solve any complex problem without knowing details? Major life-altering decisions are commonly made on an initial visit. Few people would build a house or even purchase a car with extensive research. The consequences of an ill-informed choices about your body can be devastating.

  1. It’s the mental pain

Another problem is that mental and physical pain is processed in similar brain regions, and mental pain is even less tolerated than physical pain.11 About fifteen years ago, I was perplexed by the severity of symptoms reported by many patients with essentially normal spines. I began to ask questions about their lives and discovered that most of them were dealing with unusual amounts of stress. I began asking patients, “If I could get rid of your pain or your anxiety, which one would you choose to address?” Most of them quickly answered, “ I can’t deal with the anxiety.”

A fallout of the the government’s focus of restricting access to pain medications is that patients are more stressed, which is inflammatory and further increases pain. Physicians fear prescribing even low-dose pain meds.

I recently saw two different successful businessmen for ongoing leg pain after each having two low back operations and their pain was much worse. I couldn’t see much wrong on the original MRI scans done prior to their first operations and the most recent scans didn’t reveal a cause for their ongoing pain. Finally, I remembered to ask them about their anxiety compared to the pain. Neither of them appeared to be particularly anxious. Both of them immediately said it was the anxiety that was the much bigger problem and they could deal with the leg pain.

Most my patients who have infected spines from IV drugs are overwhelmed beyond words with anxiety. They have been dealing with it for so long that they make no pretense of it being otherwise. It often began to be problematic in their early teen years and magnified by family and school dynamics. Opioids help mental pain. Even when on their usual doses of medications to prevent withdrawal symptoms, they are frequently physically quivering in bed from anxiety. Most physicians, historically including me, don’t ask many questions about anxiety and frustration.

  1. Simplistic thinking

Successfully eliminating polio and smallpox epidemics, took a widespread public health effort at many levels, costing billions of dollars. But it was accomplished with an extensive cooperation between the government, private sector and medicine. The opioid epidemic is a far bigger problem cutting across all age groups and levels of society. Limiting access to opioids as the main focus isn’t going to make the smallest dent in the problem and, as already mentioned, is going to make it worse. Anyone can and will turn to illicit sources for medications. When you’re in unrelenting pain, you’ll do whatever it takes to survive. Getting drugs from marginal suppliers or from the streets is becoming a common occurrence amongst people who never remotely would have considered it. What else are you going to do, in light of fact that medicine is not providing alternatives to solve your pain? Many people have their lives consumed by the pursuit of drugs and pain relief. Patients have laughed at us when we ask about where they are obtaining their opiates. From their perspective it’s fairly easy and it feels like it is becoming somewhat of the norm.



Finding relief any way that he can

One typical case was that of middle-aged carpenter with low back pain, who had been able to work for years by taking a stable low dose of narcotics. He needed to keep working, so when the local pain center shut down, he felt he had no other choice but to use IV heroin. I met him in the hospital where not only was his spine infected, but it had spread deeply into his pelvis. He was extremely ill. He required three operations to drain almost a gallon of pus and stabilize his spine.

The viable solution

In defense of the current efforts, the opioid epidemic has caught the attention of everyone. However, they are working from a flawed paradigm regarding the driving force behind chronic mental and physical pain like they did when working on eradicating a specific viral infection with vaccines. Yet the answer is right in front of us.

The core answer is for the medical profession to embrace and implement what we learned in medical school. Sustained stress causes chronic illness and disease because of the body’s physiology, and not from structural causes.

These reactions are automatic, emanate from the powerful unconscious brain, and aren’t controllable with rational interventions. So, what is the solution? Lower your threat physiology. The treatment model is called, “Dynamic Healing” and threat physiology is regulated through three different portals. Your stresses (input) are processed in a manner to have less impact on your nervous system. Secondly is calming your nervous system. Finally, there are strategies to directly regulate your physiology from flight or fight to safety.

The reason there is a viable solution to the opioid epidemic is because most of the strategies used each portal are self-directed. They should still be in the context of good medical care. The details are beyond the scope of this discussion, but the bottom line is that as you attain the skills to lessen your exposure to stress/flight or fight physiology and increase your time in safety (rest and digest), your body knows how to refuel, regenerate, and heal.


  1. Beyer, Don, Chairman. JEC (Joint Economic Commission Dems), 2021.
  2. Garland EL, et al. Thought suppression as a mediator of the association between depressed mood and prescription opioid craving among chronic pain patients. J Behav Med (2016); 39:128–138. 10.1007/s10865-015-9675-9
  3. Hulbert JC, et al. Inducing amnesia through systemic suppression. Nature Communications (2016); 7:11003 | DOI: 10.1038/ncomms11003
  4. A.R. Mansour, M.A. Farmer, M.N. Balikia and A. Vania Apkarian. Chronic pain: The role of learning and brain plasticity. Restorative Neurology and Neuroscience (2014): 32:129-139. DOI 10.3233/RNN-139003.
  5. Franklin GM, et al. “Outcome of lumbar fusion in Washington State Workers’ Compensation.” Spine (1994); 19:1897–903.
  6. Heyward J, et al. Coverage of Nonpharmacologic Treatments for LowBack Pain Among US Public and Private Insurers.JAMA Network Open. 2018;1(6):e183044. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2018.3044
  7. Young AK, et al. Assessment of Presurgical Psychological Screening in Patients Undergoing Spine Surgery. J Spinal Disorder Tech (2014); 27: 76-79.
  8. Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of AffectionDeborah Blum. Perseus Books, Philadelphia, PA, 2002.
  9. Presented by Daniel Alford, MD. Lecture: Challenges in Physician Education, Kaiser Pain Symposium, October 20, 2018.
  10. Alford DP, German JS, Samet JH, Cheng DM, Lloyd-Travaglini CA, Saitz R. Primary care patients with drug use report chronic pain and self-medicate with alcohol and other drugs. J Gen Intern Med. 2016;31(5):486-491.
  11. Lane RD, at al. Biased competition favoring physical over emotional Pain: A possible explanation for the link Between early adversity and chronic pain. Psychosomatic Medicine (2018); 80:880-890. DOI: 10.1097/PSY.0000000000000640