Pain has become our fifth vital sign. Speaking last fall at a New Jersey symposium on pain management called Do No Harm, the chairman of emergency services at Hackensack University Medical Center said what his audience of doctors and nurses hardly needed to be told. We are all familiar with the medical routine: The thermometer beeps, the blood pressure gauge sighs, breaths and pulse are recordedand then were asked, these days, how much it hurts on a scale of one to 10. Pain didnt get there on its own. In fact, the speaker was borrowing a line from the American Pain Society, a patient-advocacy group whose research is supported by pharmaceutical companies. In a certain way, he confessed, we have created our own monster.
The speaker was referring to the nationwide surge in prescription drug addiction, particularly opioid painkillers, which now kill nearly 17,000 Americans per year. That represents a four-fold increase over the past decade.