Originally Published: October 29, 2003 6:10 p.m.
I'm not much of a "dittohead," but I do have a soft spot in my heart for Rush Limbaugh for reasons unrelated to politics.
When my father was lying nearly comatose in the intensive care unit the final two weeks of his life, he rallied only once — to request a radio "so I can listen to my buddy Rush."
Say what you will about Limbaugh, he brought life to the party. His admission now to drug "addiction" caused me to say to a friend, "I feel sorry for him." Why? "Because I feel sorry for anyone who suffers addiction."
If, in fact, he is an addict. The verdict is still out despite what the evidence suggests. Also, pain specialists are distressed that all the piling on following Limbaugh's admission of drug use may set pain management back 100 years.
First, there's a difference between physical dependence on drugs and addiction. If you use legal medications as prescribed, you're unlikely to become addicted.
Recent research shows that only between 6 percent to 10 percent of all chronic pain patients on opioids become addicted. That's the same percentage as the general population who becomes addicted, for example, to alcohol or shopping or gambling. In other words, the risk for opioid addiction is no greater than the risk for other addictive behaviors and substances.
The key to avoiding addiction to pain medications such as Oxycontin, the opioid Limbaugh was taking, is presence of pain, according to Joan Wentz, an assistant professor and specialist in pain management at Jewish Hospital College of Nursing and Allied Health in St. Louis. That is, if you have pain and treat it with opioids, you're unlikely to become addicted, though you may develop a physical dependence.
Dependence means simply that your body adjusts to the medication and if you withdraw abruptly, you will suffer unpleasant symptoms such as sweats, palpitations, hallucinations.
Addiction, on the other hand, is defined as compulsive craving and uncontrolled use despite harm. Whether this definition characterizes Limbaugh's situation is unknown and may remain unknown as he pursues private treatment.
The number of pills he reportedly procured doesn't necessarily indicate addiction, says Wentz. He indeed may have been in pain and, because of his body's adjustment, needed more medication to manage it.
Wentz and others in pain management worry that people who need medication now will fail to seek treatment for fear of addiction, and doctors may hesitate to prescribe it when needed.
Limbaugh's fall from grace ultimately may be a blessing not only for him, but also for people who suffer pain and those who succumb to addiction. The message in the bottle is this: Suffering pain is not heroic, and becoming an addict is not a crime.
Maybe even Rush will allow as much when he brings his irrepressible, and doubtless humbled, spirit back to the party.
(Kathleen Parker, a syndicated columnist for the Orlando Sentinel, welcomes comments via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, although she cannot respond to all mail individually.)