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Pandemic forces many struggling with pain to turn to opioids

MADISON, Wis. -- When the pandemic began, health experts were especially worried about how the stress and isolation would affect people struggling with addiction. Not only did group counseling go away, but many treatments had to stop.

Dr. Alaa Abd-elsayed, medical director of UW Health's pain services, said as clinics like the UW Health Pain Management Clinic closed their doors, patients dealing with pain often had no choice but to turn to opioids.

"We couldn't do any interventional pain procedures, because again, we were in lockdown and our surgical centers were closed," he said.

Dr. Abd-elsayed said at the start of the pandemic, patients couldn't get into the clinic unless it was absolutely urgent and it was even hard to get into the emergency room.

So for patients in pain, treatments like physical therapy, infusion therapy, and other tools to replace the use of opioids were no longer available.

"The only way that was available was to prescribe pain medication interim to help the patient with their pain," said Abd-elsayed. "We told them once we open we will get back to our other treatment

He said this was especially difficult for patients who had been successfully treating their pain with those other methods and were off opioids, then had no choice but to go back to them.

"Specifically during the pandemic, when you prescribe opioids the mental type of trauma happening to patients, I would say is not normal, but way beyond what they can take," said Abd-elsayed.

Now even though the pain clinic is back open and interventional pain management treatments are available again, the process to get off opioids starts over. And it's not easy.

"I have seen many colleagues in town and on the national level who couldn't get those patients off opioids," said Abd-elsayed.