Why Couldn't Painkillers Help Prince's (Or Anyones) Long Term Pain?

02/05/2016 17:59

Everyone's suffered pain. And I don't even mean the emotional kind that gets us watching Disney movies after break-ups. I mean, we've all stubbed our toe.


And pain is actually, as an evolutionary feature, quite useful. It tells us when we're about to hurt ourselves, which we as humans do a lot.

But this week, it's the story of Prince's long-term use of painkillers that are swirling around his sad death.

Let us be clear from the offset, we don't yet know the circumstances of his death. What we do know is he had a pain problem and that he's also been given antidotes to counteract high doses of pain medication.

Talking on the Radio 4 Today programme, Cathy Stannard, pain medicine consultant at South Mead Hospital did say that with those two pieces of information it is fair to infer that to be given an antidote, means at some point whether intentionally or not - that means Prince would have had to take enough pain killers to be considered an overdose.

So how does anyone get to a point where they are taking prescription painkillers to excess?


It's easier than you might think.

It happened to me, after a nasty spell of operations and being in pain for a long time I found myself having taken morphine every day for over three years. I was eventually deemed to be a 'chronic pain sufferer'. Which, at the time seemed like yet another painful sentence.

Reflecting upon it, I put together this short audio documentary to answer the question I wanted to know when that persistent label was slapped on me. What on earth is this pain thing?

What's really important to understand about pain is it's useful - until it's not. Then it becomes persistent, and persistent pain is not useful.

And that's why painkillers can't help people with long term pain, because the pain system has gone wrong, and pain medication is designed for when the pain system is working.

Medication is designed to numb the nervous system in the short term. However, you can't remain numb forever, no matter how much you'd like to.

Cathy Stannard pointed out that although we in the UK are not as big users of medication as our American counterparts, we are beginning to catch up. Quoting recent data sets she pointed out how 23 million of us in the UK are using strong painkillers at a cost of around £314M a year in England alone.

We also don't know how many people in the UK are dying because of prescription pain medication. However, we know that the first death linked to tramadol was reported in 1996. In the last year, 240 patients died with the drug implicated.

All of this is why pain consultants like mine and Cathy Stannard are trying to teach people who suffer from pain that, painkillers aren't always the answer.

How can you cope with pain, without medication?


The international association of pain describes the pain as both a sensory and emotional response.

The message here? Pain is just as much about, the physical pain as it is your emotional reaction to it. Speaking in the documentary lead doctor at mindfulness website, Dr. David Cox, speaks about how studies show that mindfulness, though it doesn't stop pain - can help patients manage it and make their lives significantly better.

I use mindfulness everyday to literally turn down the volume of the pain. I also repeat this phrase to myself whenever it gets too much.

Pain is for danger. I am not in danger. So I am not in pain.
Pain is for danger. I am not in danger. So I am not in pain.

Sounds like mumbo jumbo? I certainly thought so, but your mind is a powerful thing. Ask your pain consultant next time you see them about whether you might be able to use less medication with mindfulness - they are the best person to advise you.

But know this; you don't have to rely on meds to numb you. I'm much happier now I'm not living between doses of painkillers - I'm awake to the world.

Listen to 'What Is Pain?' to get a better understanding of how I used mindfulness to help manage my pain.