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Addiction Suspicion and RA

Updated on July 06, 2022
Medically reviewed by
Ariel D. Teitel, M.D., M.B.A.
Article written by
Anastasia Climan, RDN, CDN

Part of living with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) usually includes taking medication to manage joint pain. Unfortunately, chronic disease pain is often misunderstood or mistaken as an excuse to access controlled substances. It’s not unusual for people with RA to feel like others are judging them for seeking pain relief. This stigma can lead those with RA to delay getting the care they need.

Here’s how others on myRAteam deal with addiction suspicion and what you can do to maintain a good quality of life while avoiding uncomfortable interactions.

How Addiction Suspicion Affects Those With RA

Being shamed or regarded with suspicion when you seek support for pain can be hurtful and isolating, and it’s not an unusual experience. Members of myRAteam report instances of being shamed by close family and friends and even health care professionals for needing pain medication.

“My husband jabs at the fact that I have to take medication for the pain and makes me feel like I am an addict,” one member wrote.

Another member shared her negative experiences at the pharmacy: “They look at me as if I’m a drug addict when I pick up my meds every month.”

Several members have had emotionally distressing exchanges with clinicians about their pain management needs. “I have enough trouble dealing with my deep depression without my doctor making me feel like a worthless drug addict,” a member wrote.

Although some members have had negative experiences with doctors, many ultimately found health care providers who are respectful and responsive to their pain management needs.

“It took me seeing three different doctors to finally get one that seems to understand my pain. We need more understanding of this excruciatingly painful disease, and it saddens me that people are so judgmental,” a member commented.

Pain Management Challenges for Providers

Understanding your health care provider’s perspective about pain medication can improve communication and reduce frustration during appointments. In some cases, doctors have been deceived by those seeking pain medication for the wrong reasons. These doctors may be understandably wary about prescribing substances that are known to increase opioid addiction, overdose deaths, and emergency room visits.

Providers are faced with the difficult role of managing chronic pain using higher-risk tools that require continually raising dosages. Although your doctor can seem like a gatekeeper to pain relief, in most cases, they are trying to protect you.

Trust goes both ways. Individuals who feel that their doctors are not showing empathy or respect may get angry or discouraged during appointments. Acknowledging some of your provider’s challenges and limitations related to treating pain can help you see the other side of the situation and improve your experience.

How To Avoid Judgment at the Pharmacy and Home

When managing RA pain, you shouldn’t feel obligated to prove yourself to others. All you are responsible for is to be honest with your doctor and use a combination of strategies to prevent and treat pain. Still, you may experience judgment at the pharmacy or criticism from loved ones, even when you’re doing everything right.

It’s OK to protect your privacy when it comes to managing pain. To avoid the stress of going to the pharmacy in person, see if you can receive your prescriptions by mail. If not, use the pharmacy drive-thru to minimize interactions with others when you pick up your medication.

Family and friends don’t have to know about everything you’re taking to deal with RA. Those who don’t experience chronic pain might not be capable of understanding what you’re going through. Well-meaning relatives may express concern that comes across as suspicion. Instead, try connecting with a support group or an empathetic friend so that you feel less alone in your journey.

The people who live in your household or others with whom you have a close relationship may worry about you taking pain medication. To ease the concerns of family and friends and ensure they have accurate information, include them in a follow-up appointment or share educational resources from your health care provider.

Alternatives To Reduce RA Pain

Opioids and other controversial pain management drugs are not the only options for keeping RA pain at bay. You should have access to the prescriptions you need, but sometimes incorporating alternative approaches can provide additional short-term symptom relief without potentially dangerous side effects.

RA pain and flare-ups may be addressed with:

  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs
  • Steroid injections
  • Corticosteroids
  • Physical therapy
  • Heating pads
  • Cold showers
  • Over-the-counter pain relief creams and patches

Be sure to discuss any alternative strategies with your rheumatologist so they can help you avoid interactions. Other complementary therapies that may help with RA pain include:

An osteopath, an occupational therapist, or a podiatrist might offer more recommendations on ways to help manage your pain.

As with other inflammatory autoimmune diseases, managing stress and depression may produce physical effects such as lower C-reactive protein levels (a measure of inflammation). Benefits of stress management include reduced pain, along with lowered risks of other stress-related diseases, such as cardiovascular disease.

One member discussed wanting to limit pain medication after watching her father experience cardiac repercussions from treatment at a pain management clinic: “I’m supplementing my biologic infusions with dietary adjustments, mild exercise, hot tubbing, massage, and a little cannabis every now and then. I’m hoping to remain functional and at least partially sane through all of this!”

Typically, a good pain management specialist won’t provide medication alone. One member found a compassionate doctor for prescriptions who also gives referrals to address the mental aspects of chronic pain. In addition to providing steroid injections, the member wrote, “He has sent me to a health psychologist who helps people with the acceptance and understanding of pain. He has helped me learn meditation (priceless).”

Talk With Others Who Understand

On myRAteam, the social network for people with rheumatoid arthritis and their loved ones, more than 193,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with RA.

Have you encountered addiction suspicion while trying to manage your RA symptoms? Have you taken steps to help loved ones better understand your pain management approach? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.

All updates must be accompanied by text or a picture.
Ariel D. Teitel, M.D., M.B.A. is the clinical associate professor of medicine at the NYU Langone Medical Center in New York. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about him here.
Anastasia Climan, RDN, CDN is a dietitian with over 10 years of experience in public health and medical writing. Learn more about her here.

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