Stephanie Dwilson

Alternative Pain Treatments for Employees Facing Opioid Addiction

For families across America the opioid addiction epidemic is a personal issue, but for employers it’s also a workplace issue.

More than 70 percent of employers across the country are affected by the misuse of prescription drugs in the workplace, and almost 40 percent of employers say their employees have missed work because of prescription drug use. There is a way to fight this trend, however — employers have a unique opportunity to help their staff members find alternative pain treatments to opioids through their benefits offerings.

Opioid Addiction and the Workplace

The opioid epidemic can be traced back to the 1990s, when pharmaceutical companies developed new prescription painkillers and promoted them to doctors. Not realizing how addictive the drugs were, doctors prescribed them far too freely. Now, in the United States, more than 130 people a day die after overdosing on opioids.

The problem has only escalated — roughly 21 to 29 percent of patients prescribed opioids for chronic pain misuse them. This misuse spills into the workplace, and opioid abuse can cause financial and legal issues for companies, from diminished productivity to increased ER visits, hospitalizations and workers’ compensation claims.

This means that even beyond caring for the safety of their employees, businesses have plenty of reasons to support staff members in the midst of the opioid epidemic. But it’s common for employees facing opioid addiction to worry that seeking help will affect their employment or subject them to judgment from co-workers. So work to create an open and encouraging environment for your staff — it’s better that employees feel comfortable discussing their opioid struggles than believing they have to hide them.

Alternative Treatments

To help give your employees options beyond opioids, consider looking into how alternative pain treatments might fit into your benefits package. Options might include:

  • Other medications. Some medications might actually be better at addressing pain than opioids, even if they aren’t typically viewed as being very strong. Anti-inflammatories, local anesthetics and non-opioids like sodium-channel blockers may actually work better at treating pain. A 2018 study found that opioids weren’t any more effective than nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (or NSAIDs) at managing chronic pain. That said, over-the-counter medications may come with their own addiction risks, so encourage employees do their research and be thorough in their conversations with their doctors.
  • Physical therapy. Physical therapy is another option, one that can get to the heart of the problem rather than simply covering up the pain. A 2018 white paper by the American Physical Therapy Association outlines physical therapy’s role in pain management, noting that it’s particularly effective at treating chronic pain, lower back pain, arthritis and surgery-related pain.
  • Complementary and alternative medicine. Different types of alternative and complementary treatments can also help manage pain and serve as alternatives to opioids. Acupuncture, for example, can help ease lower back pain, neck pain, osteoarthritis and knee pain; it can also help with tension and migraine headaches. Chiropractic treatment is another potentail alternative to opioids in some situations, as it can treat lower back pain and other forms of chronic pain.
  • Medical treatments. Beyond the traditional alternatives, there’s a wide range of innovative treatments that employees may be able to access. Spinal cord stimulation, for example, can help people with chronic pain reduce or eliminate opioid use. Radiofrequency ablation treats pain by heating the nerves that transmit back pain. Some options are even accessible without leaving the house — employees can get an at-home TENS unit, which delivers slight currents that some believe may interrupt pain sensations.
  • Local and government programs. Addiction is increasingly seen as a health issue, not a criminal one. Reflecting this shift, programs aimed at steering patients away from opioids have begun introducing different methods of addressing their pain. In Illinois, patients with opioid prescriptions can trade them in for medical cannabis prescriptions under the Opioid Alternative Pilot Program. PlanAgainstPain takes a comprehensive approach to the opioid epidemic, offering multiple resources for alternative pain treatment based on a variety of specific situations such as dental surgery, women’s health and orthopedic surgery.

Talk with your health care agent and make sure the health plans available to your employees encourage options that can act as an alternative to opioids. Do your offerings cover opioid-free treatment? Do in-network hospitals and doctors have a strong record of recommending non-opioid prescriptions for pain management? If your goal is to foster an open and positive environment for employees to seek a way out of addiction, start by confirming that your benefits package reflects those values.

Employers have an important role to play in the fight against opioid addiction. Get to the core of how the opioid epidemic affects your business and learn what resources are in place for employers to create a productive, healthy workplace with Anthem’s report, “The Opioid Crisis in America and How Employers Can Help.”