This week’s grim report about rising suicide and overall death rates among white, middle-aged Americans contains a slim silver lining. Here it is:
The new analysis by two Princeton economists, Anne Case and Angus Deaton, suggests that chronic pain — and the opioids used to treat it — may be a key driver of the rising deaths. While the “noisy” opioid epidemic has garnered near-daily headlines across the country for several years now, the equally horrible but silent epidemic of chronic pain has not yet broken through into the nation’s consciousness. Maybe things are beginning to change.
Many people still don’t realize it, but 100 million American adults live with chronic pain, many of them with pain so bad it wrecks their work, their families, their mental health and their lives.
There are no hard data on how many people with chronic pain die by suicide every year. But there are inferences. The suicide rate among people with chronic pain is known to be roughly twice that for people without chronic pain.
Since there are 41,149 suicides every year in the U.S., according to the National Center for Health Statistics, it's possible that roughly half of these suicides are driven by pain. Not proven fact, but plausible hypothesis. This would suggest that perhaps up to 20,000 Americans a year with chronic pain kill themselves, which would be more than the government’s tally of 16,235 deaths from prescription opioids every year. According to a CDC spokeswoman:
In 2013, there were 8,257 deaths that involved heroin and 16,235 deaths that involved prescription opioids. These categories are not mutually exclusive: if a decedent had both a prescription opioid as well as heroin listed on their death certificate, their death is counted in both the heroin as well as the prescription opioid death categories.
The truth, of course, is devilishly difficult to figure out with any certainty. Many people in severe, chronic pain have, and should have, opioids available. But unless they leave a suicide note it’s virtually impossible to tell if they overdose on purpose or accidentally. That's in stark contrast to a pain patient who ends his or her life using a gun. That’s clearly a suicide, with or without a note.
In the course of researching my 2014 book on chronic pain, I heard many grisly stories. One Salt Lake City truck driver I interviewed would be dead today if his wife hadn’t walked in on him with a gun in his mouth. He had been in severe headache pain and after many visits to the ER, was repeatedly dismissed as a drug seeker, even without a medical workup. (Eventually, he was diagnosed with two brain aneurysms, bulging weak spots in a blood vessel).
I also heard about a surgeon with shingles who could find no relief for his pain and took a scalpel to his back in an attempt to dig out the painful nerves; he wound up in his own ER — as a patient. I heard of another man with ophthalmic shingles who finally shot himself because of unrelieved pain. A Boston surgeon I met was on the verge of suicide due to unrelenting pain from a rare autoimmune disease.
The anecdotes go on and on. Unfortunately, from a statistical point of view, they are just anecdotes. And unlike opioid abuse deaths, the stories of these and other pain patients rarely make the headlines.
Nor do these cases routinely make it into the reports of medical examiners and coroners, according to Utah pain specialist Dr. Lynn Webster, writing in a recent issue of Pain Medicine News.
In this week’s Princeton study, the lead author, Anne Case, was particularly interested in the role poor health might play in suicide because, as she told The New York Times, she herself has suffered for 12 years from disabling and untreatable lower back pain. In her research, Case discovered that middle-aged people, unlike the young and unlike the elderly, were reporting more pain in recent years than in the past. One-third of people in this group had chronic joint pain in recent years and one in seven reported sciatica.
The dismal situation with chronic pain — and the potential link with suicide — is unlikely to improve until the federal government takes the pain epidemic seriously. While the government spends $2,562 on research for every person with HIV/AIDS, it spends only $4 for every person with pain.
Clearly, chronic pain needs more attention and more research dollars. After all, it is the main reason Americans go on disability.
And it appears to be driving growing numbers of Americans to kill themselves.
Judy Foreman is the author of “A Nation in Pain: Healing Our Biggest Health Problem."