Getting the info

Opioid painkiller alternatives investigated

From left to right, Tyler Trowbridge, COO of Dirt City Sanctuary; Molly Nixon, congressional staffer for U.S. Rep. Justin Amash R-Grand Rapids; Dr. Mark Jesin, oral and maxillofacial surgeon; Cheri Lattimer, executive director of National Transitions of Care Coalition and Stacy Peck, CEO of Dirt City Sanctuary, gather to talk about opioid epidemic and value of opioid alternatives, in Washington, D.C. (Courtesy photo)

MARQUETTE — As of 2015, there were 115 opioid prescriptions per 100 people in Michigan. From 1999 to 2016, overdose deaths from opioids increased from 99 to 1,699, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

The numbers bring Michigan’s opioid epidemic into sharp focus — opioids can be highly addictive because they trigger a massive release of endorphins, pain-alleviating neurotransmitters, in the nervous system.

“There’s data to show that just the exposure (to opioids) of three to five days can create those pathways in the brain that lead you towards addiction,” said Dr. Mark Jesin, a Grand Rapids-based oral surgeon who is working to spread the word about pain-relief alternatives.

People from all walks of life can become addicted to prescription opioids, with devastating effects.

“You pretty much lose everything in life,” said Tyler Trowbridge, a Grand Rapids man who is recovering from opioid addiction while helping others do the same through his nonprofit, Dirt City Sanctuary, a community-housing project for those who face addiction and homelessness.

Trowbridge and Jesin, who performed extensive dental work for Trowbridge during his recovery, are now working together to spread the word about the dangers of over-prescribing opioids — the more frequently opioids are prescribed, the greater the risk of addiction and overdose.

“More than 7.5 million patients receiving 103.2 million prescriptions over the last five years were linked to 5,261 overdose deaths,” according to Michigan’s Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs.

Trowbridge and Jesin feel this is a big problem.

Jesin highlighted the effects of opioid use on people of all ages, saying he was shocked to find out babies born dependent on a drug their mother took during pregnancy accounted for 10 percent of neonatal intensive care unit admissions at a hospital in his area.

“For the health care system, it’s so much easier and cheaper for doctors to just throw all these big prescription narcotics at people and they think it’s this easy fix, but it’s causing all these problems, not just medical problems but social problems,” Trowbridge said.

Jesin said treating Trowbridge and hearing his story made him think twice about current opioid prescription practices in the medical and dental fields.

“Ever since Tyler’s story, I’ve really looked at my prescribing practices and it’s just really made me learn more about how we, as physicians and dentists, how our prescriptions are gateways to opioid misuse,” he said.

Jesin began to explore alternatives to opioids for pain relief after injury or surgery when he was preparing to treat Trowbridge.

“I can’t have opiates, because I mean, that was my drug of choice — one of the drugs that they use is fentanyl and then another one is, they prescribe Norco for aftercare pain and neither of those I can have,” Trowbridge said, adding “for me, in my mind, taking those would be me relapsing.”

These non-opioid alternative painkillers can be helpful for those who are recovering from an opioid addiction, like Trowbridge, as well as people who want to avoid taking opioid painkillers in the first place, Jesin said.

However, opioid alternatives, such as Exparel, which Trowbridge used, are typically not covered under insurance, requiring a patient to pay several hundred dollars out of pocket.

“Dr. Jesin actually paid for Exparel out of his own pocket for me, I do have Medicaid but most insurances don’t cover it,” Trowbridge said.

Due to this, Jesin and Trowbridge have been trying to change the system by speaking with legislators.

“We have to get bills passed that improve reimbursement for these medications and also improve the efficiency of the regulating systems in the FDA to move forward, and really put an emphasis on putting these other alternatives that are being developed, to get them approved,” Jesin said, adding he would like to see the alternatives approved for those under 18, as “that’s our most vulnerable patient population when they’re exposed to a narcotic.”

Trowbridge and Jesin feel this is one way they can help combat the opioid epidemic. Another way is to encourage greater awareness of opioid alternatives.

“There has to be improved awareness amongst doctors and dentists about the alternatives,” Jesin said, noting “If you took 10 dentists, I would bet you that nine out of 10 them wouldn’t even know about the alternatives.”

Jesin says many are unaware of the addictive potential of prescription drugs.

“There’s also not an awareness amongst the medical community yet of how quickly addiction can set in with our prescription drugs,” he said, noting “we just have to know how powerful these are on the medical side of things and really, really decrease our use of them and tailor it to when it’s needed and only when it’s needed.”

Trowbridge says he hopes his work and sharing his story can help others who are in the situation he faced.

“A responsibility that I feel now, as someone that got clean, is to help other people,” He said. “There’s so many people that are in the same situation that I was in, people that felt like nobody cares, that there’s no hope. So I’m just hoping that people can read my story and see there’s people out there that do care and that there’s help out there for people.”

For more information about Trowbridge and his non-profit, Dirt City Sanctuary, visit https://dirtcitysanctuary.org.

Cecilia Brown can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 248.