Health experts claim that COVID-19 survivors are at risk for a potential second pandemic. Since physicians prescribe these patients a high rate of pain pills, going through a second pandemic of addiction to opioids is a very real possibility. Nature put out a new study that found COVID-19 survivors at Veterans Health Administration facilities had distressingly high rates of opioid use that came from helping them deal with lingering illness symptoms.
They found that around 10% of survivors went on to develop a condition known as long COVID. They began struggling with disabling health issues for six months or more after their initial diagnosis. For every 1,000 so-called long COVID patients doctors treated at these Veterans Affairs facilities, physicians wrote nine more opioid prescriptions than they normally would have. Additionally, they wrote 22 additional benzodiazepine prescriptions, including addictive pills to treat anxiety like Xanax.
Previous studies also found that COVID-19 long haulers or survivors experience a myriad of health problems that persist for months. The study’s lead author, Dr. Ziyad Al-Aly, found that these COVID-19 survivors are using more addictive prescription medications. Dr. Ziyad Al-Aly is very concerned that even a very small increase in people using addictive opioid medications can and will lead to the opioid crisis resurging due to the big number of COVID-19 long haulers. To date, more than three million of the 31 million survivors end up developing long-term symptoms. These symptoms can include depression, fatigue, anxiety, shortness of breath, and brain fog.
The study also found that several survivors also reported bone or muscle pain. The jump in prescribing opioid medications was surprising due to the very valid concerns about their risk for addiction. Dr. Al-Aly studied over 73,000 patients at Veterans Affairs facilities for his study. He said that the physicians are supposed to think twice about prescribing opioids for the pain.
Dr. Aly-Aly also believes that physicians need to act before it’s too late. The last thing we want is to have another opioid epidemic or a suicide crisis. But, there is a silver lining. Since 2012, new opioid prescriptions have been on the decline as physicians learned more about the medication’s addictive qualities. However, Brandeis University’s medical director of opioid policy research, Dr. Andrew Kolodny, said that doctors in the United States still write prescriptions for drugs like codeine, Vicodin, and OxyContin than doctors outside of the United States.
They also found that some patients who develop an addiction to these opioid medications switch to heroin. This is due to the fact that they either couldn’t get opioids from their doctors via prescription or it was cheaper. The CDC found that overdose deaths continue to rise because drug dealers are now spiking their heroin supply with fentanyl. Fentanyl is a very strong synthetic opioid. During August 2019 and August 2020, more than 88,000 people died due to an overdose. This caused health experts to advise physicians to stop prescribing these opioid medications for long-term usage.
President of the Society of Critical Care Medicine, Dr. Greg Martin, says that COVID-19 patients that get hospitalized due to the illness tend to get much more medication to help control anxiety and pain. This is especially true for those in the intensive care units. For example, patients who end up on ventilators get sedated to help keep them comfortable. Dr. Martin voiced concerns about the findings of this study because the study suggests that COVID-19 survivors are continuing to use medications unnecessarily once they get out of the hospital to help treat persistent symptoms.
Some surviving patients say that they are experiencing bone and muscle pain for the first time when they previously had none. However, other patients say that COVID-19 intensified their preexisting pain sensations to whole new levels.
One such patient is Rachael Burnett. She is a chronic pain patient who has experienced ongoing, chronic pain in her feet and back for over 20 years. This pain stems from a warehouse accident where she used to work. In April 2020, Burnett was diagnosed with COVID-19. Since she received that diagnosis, she claims that her chronic pain is 10 times worse than it originally was. She also claims that her pain spread to her spine and to the area between her shoulder blades.
At the time, Burnett was already prescribed extended-release OxyContin twice every day to help manage her pain levels. Due to her increased pain, her physician prescribed her a second medication called oxycodone. This opioid can help relieve your pain straight away. In December 2020, Burnett was reinfected with a second round of COVID-19.
Dr. Martin said that physicians should recognize that new or an increase in pain levels can be a part of long COVID. He proposes that physicians have to find a non-narcotic treatment option for this pain, just like they would with any other type of chronic pain. The CDC has a list of alternatives to opioid medications. These alternative therapies include biofeedback, physical therapy, antidepressants, over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs, and anti-seizure medication. These therapies can help reduce or relieve nerve pain.
Additionally, Dr. Al-Aly thinks that the United States has to come up with a viable strategy to cope with the patients who have long-term symptoms of COVID-19. He believes that it’s much better to prepare in advance than to get caught off guard in a few years when physicians see a surge in opioid usage. Dr. Al-Aly noted that the study he performed might not accurately capture the full picture of COVID-19 survivors’ needs. For example, most of the patients in the VA system are male while women make up the biggest portion of long COVID-19 patients in most other studies.
The director and founder of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, Dr. Eric Topol, said that Dr. Al-Aly’s study made it very clear that healthcare facilities in the United States aren’t ready to meet the three million long COVID-19 patients’ needs. He believes that we need a lot more intervention that will help to effectively treat these survivors. Dr. Al-Aly believes that COVID-19 long haulers may need treatment for years, and that this treatment is going to be a very large burden on the entire healthcare system.