Is It Possible For Young Children To Misuse Opioids?

Author’s note: “Emily” is a pseudonym, and she’s someone I know. I’ve changed just enough details of her story to protect her family’s privacy.

Lynn Webster, MD, opioids, addiction, painFour-year-old Emily had a rare form of cancer.  She had received chemotherapy every week for about three months.  She also had to bear frequent painful procedures. Emily’s mother, Sally, vicariously experienced some of the same pain, knowing that her daughter might not live.

For physicians, the challenges of treating children include being cognizant of the parents’ feelings and concerns as well.  A child commonly reflects a parent’s perception of pain or anxiety.

The cancer was eating Emily’s bones like maggots eating dead tissue. The excruciating pain emanated from her spine and long bones.  Due to the persistent pain, Emily was placed on OxyContin. But she had another type of pain that wasn’t helped by this medication. This pain had a sharp, piercing character — what we call lancinating —  and its sudden onset would often last only a few minutes. During these episodes, Emily would scream. Sally asked if there was a way for the spikes of pain to be treated.  So intravenous morphine was administered when Emily was at the hospital and cried with lancinating pain.

On a cold winter day, Emily was hospitalized for more chemotherapy. Emily asked the nurse for a morphine injection.  Although still on her OxyContin, Emily had been asking for morphine with increasing frequency.  It didn’t appear to the nurse that Emily was in more pain than usual at that moment, but she complied with Emily’s request, attaching the syringe to the IV port and beginning a slow injection.

“Push it fast,” Emily begged.

“Why?” the nurse asked.

“Because it makes me feel good.”

This was an unexpected response, and when I heard about it, it caught my attention. Emily certainly was experiencing physical pain, but is it possible she was asking for a particular experience — for a blunting of emotional pain as well? This type of desire is common in adults, who will sometimes use opioids to cope with their emotional struggles as well as to relieve pain.

Until I heard Emily’s story, I would have disbelieved that a child would seek such an effect. Now, I am not so sure.

Of one thing I am certain: Emily made her request in innocence and without guile. The four-year-old is not a “drug addict,” but her very naiveté reveals how opioids such as morphine may become a trap for a vulnerable person.

Opioids are indicated for relief of physical pain. Using them to mask emotional pain can lead to great harm. If a four-year-old child can have emotional pain that supersedes her physical pain, we can be certain this human need is not an anomaly.

It may not be possible for newborns and children to be “addicted,” but we do not have to be an adult to develop a desire to feel good that could be harmful.

How can this insight help people in pain? Understanding that there can be a slippery slope when using these powerful medications. Relieving physical pain may be the reason to initiate opioid use but, if continued use is to relieve emotional suffering, it can lead to disaster. People must be cautious of this possible transgression.

How can this insight help physicians? Knowing that a subset of patients may initially derive benefit from an opioid but that using an opioid can evolve into treating symptoms other than pain. And, therefore, using opioids more judiciously. That means asking insightful questions, and monitoring patients’ use more closely, while the patient is taking opioids.

How can Emily’s story help policymakers and regulators? Knowing that, whatever laws or regulations that are implemented, if opioids are the only treatment for moderate to severe pain, they will be used for the wrong reasons.  If an innocent dying child seeks blissful relief then it should be instructive that, to prevent this from occurring, there must be equally effective alternative therapies available and affordable.

As part of our healthcare transformation, new effective and safe therapies must be a priority of the FDA, U.S. Congress, and the National Institutes of Health.  Until then, physicians, patients, society and legislators will struggle with finding a balance of providing pain relief and preventing the misuse of opioids.


Purchase my book The Painful Truth: What Chronic Pain Is Really Like and Why It Matters to Each of Us (available on Amazon) or read a free excerpt here.the painful truth, lynn webster, md, chronic pain
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  1. Arden on December 30, 2015 at 3:09 am

    Couldn’t “feel good” mean it relieves the pain? Why put a “buzz” spin on it?

    • Lynn Webster, M.D. on December 30, 2015 at 8:48 am

      “Feel Good” is what Emily said. It is not a spin. You may interpret those words as you wish. It was a eureka moment for me and supports what I have seen clinically for decades. Some people do use opioids for pain and emotional relief. That is not a crime however it can lead to harm.

  2. Marlene Smith on January 1, 2016 at 10:58 am

    I am a pediatrician and spouse to a chronic pain sufferer. My husband showed me your interview yesterday and I downloaded the e book and ordered the hardcover copy. I read with interest your observation about the 4 year old recognizing the immediate “high” she got from the push of morphine. It brought back memories of working with sickle cell patients during my training that were stigmatized when they requested doses and didn’t seem to be “in pain” anymore. I recognized back then that some of these kids were indeed looking to feel relief from the pain of being in a hospital bed, away from their friends, school, life–not just the “pain” of their very real sickle cell crisis. I remember some kids became very adept at “faking” their crisis pain in order to get medication. Instead of getting annoyed or angry with the child/family for being “drug seeking” I tried to take the time to empathize with their situation.
    I cannot wait to see the full documentary…when does it air on PBS? I am the Medical Director for our healthcare system in a very rural part of Pa and would love to chat with you more on how to develop and implement a model Pain Clinic for our region.

    • Lynn Webster, M.D. on January 1, 2016 at 11:44 am

      Thank you for your comments Marlene. The documentary air date on public television has not been set yet. I anticipate a mid Feb showing. I will notify my followers as soon as I know. I would be happy to talk with you anytime. Lynn

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