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How to Cope With Patients Who Have a Substance Abuse Disorder


Is your patient a Drug Addict?

Patients with substance abuse disorders are hard to cope with.

So there’s this patient, Jake. Maybe you know him? Jake is very sociable, and has a lot of …colorful friends who visit him in the hospital. He’s quite likeable, because he’s intelligent, funny and clever. He’s not bad-looking, but his lifestyle is starting to take a toll on his looks. Jake had an appendectomy and also has a substance abuse disorder.

Fast forward:

Time: 1940. Right now, Jake is leaning against the doorjamb in the doorway of his room, looking up and down the hallway for me. He’s holding his cell phone in hand and repeatedly checking the time. Just to irritate me, I’m sure. He always calls for his pain meds before they’re due.

Funny, I’ve yet to ever see him exhibit any outward signs of pain. On the contrary, Jake always appears relaxed, but his reported pain level is always a “ten.”

Jake Lies

Time: 1945. Only because I have to, I ask : “What’s your pain on a scale of one to ten?” He automatically answers “ten” without blinking an eye or looking up from Candy Crush. I might as well have asked “Yo, Jake, what’s six plus four?”

Jake Gets His Dilaudid

substance abuse, pain meds, patient,

Some patients always know exactly what time it is

Time: 2005. Ok, Ok! It’s time. Reluctantly, I enter the room. Jake scoots eagerly to the side of the bed nearest me and proffers his inner arm, exposing his antecubital saline lock. With his opposite hand, he pushes the sleeve of his patient gown up high and out of the way. His eyes are bright and his gaze is steadfastly fixed on the syringe in my hand.

He watches intently as I swab his saline lock port with an alcohol wipe. He’s craving his fix. He swallows. He supervises as I pierce the rubber hub and finally inject the Dilaudid into his bloodstream. Then he asks me to “flush it fast.” I don’t respond or make eye contact. I flush the port and leave the room as quickly as I can.

I’m feeling repulsed. Did I say repulsed? Yes. I’ll be honest here. You may stop reading now, you may be shocked, you may unfollow me. But I know that if I feel this way…I can’t be the only one.

More on How I Feel

Dirty. Tarnished, as if I’m complicit in Jake’s addiction. I’m pushing IV drugs on an IV drug user ? Really? That’s not what nurses do!

I’m angry.

  • Angry because I feel manipulated and used
  • Angry because Jake’s not playing by My Rules
  • Angry because I’m a tight-lipped, mean nurse with Jake. Not the compassionate angel of mercy I prefer to think of myself as! I hate when that happens, JAKE!!
  • Angry because I’m angry[Tweet “I’m a tight-lipped, mean nurse with Jake, the drug addict”]

What are My Rules? I’m playing by the: “What the Patient Reports as Pain is the Gold Standard” Rule Book. And Jake’s Rules? No rules. He’s just playing me for a fool. Or so it feels.

Take a Deep Breath and Repeat

I don’t like how I feel. So, for a minute, let’s just step back from Jake and the floor and review some pain management terms.


Tolerance is a normal physiological response to exposure of a substance over time. Think coffee. You require more caffeine to realize the effects you enjoyed when you first started using, I mean, drinking, coffee. There’s:

  • Tolerance to side effects, can include sedation or nausea, (opiates) and
  • Tolerance to analgesic effects, which requires higher doses to achieve pain relief
physical dependence, tolerance, substance abuse

I need my coffee strong, please!

Jake has tolerance to both. “Normal” doses of pain medication will not relieve Jake’s post-op pain. Dilaudid one mg IV for Jake is like a lukewarm, watery, half cup of coffee is to me. Due to tolerance, Jake needs more pain medication, not less.


Physical dependence develops with repeated exposure to opioids.

“Tolerance, withdrawal, and physiologic dependence are expected responses to opioids …and are not by themselves indicative of addiction.”  American Society of Pain Management Nurses (ASPMN) Position Statement on Pain Management in Patients with Substance Abuse Disorders, 2012

Many respectable, functioning members of society live with chronic pain that’s managed by some form of opiate. Given enough time and drug, they become  physically dependent. Dependence in and of itself does not constitute  addiction.


According to the American Society of Addiction Medication (ASAM), addiction is  “A chronic, primary disease of (the) brain…characterized by inability to abstain.” People with active addictions can’t control their cravings or impulses.

Here’s the thing- patients with active addiction have pain, too. Perhaps even more pain than other people undergoing the same procedure. There’s a phenomena known as opioid induced hyperalgesia, in which patients dependent on opioids have increased pain despite increasing doses of meds.

What Else ASPMN Tells Us

The (ASPMN) Position statement further says:

“Patients with substance abuse disorders and pain have the right to be treated with dignity, respect, and the same quality of pain assessment as all other patients.

So when Jake, the post-op substance abuser, asks for his pain meds, it’s complicated. [Tweet “It’s easier to dismiss Jake as a drug user than to sort this all out “]Added to the problem is that few providers are schooled in managing pain in patients addicted to opiates. Dr. McSurgeon will most likely order his one size fits all post-op pain management order set.

Here are somethings I’ve learned to reduce my frustration:

Six Resolutions that Help Me Cope with Patients with Substance Abuse Disorder

  1. I will check my judgmental attitude. I remind myself that I don’t know how Jake got to this place. I don’t know his story, all the factors and forces that led to his addiction. Was he a cute little boy?

Did someone hurt him?  Did his father leave him? I’m not saying that any of these are an excuse to use drugs. I myself didn’t have a stellar childhood, and I don’t use drugs. But reminding myself that I haven’t walked in Jake’s shoes instantly changes my perspective and helps me be less judgmental.

  1. I will be realistic. Why am I surprised when a person with a substance abuse disorder displays behaviors… consistent with those of a substance abuse disorder?  Folks with DKA have high blood sugars. Folks with an active addiction lie, cheat, steal and manipulate to get their drugs. When Jake lies, flatters, or wheedles, I won’t take any of it personally.
  2. I will understand my job. I can’t cure Jake’s addiction. I’m not that powerful. Even if I could, which I can’t, and even if he wanted me to, which he doesn’t, that’s not why he’s here. Jake’s here because he had surgery. My job is to provide the best post-op nursing care I can.
  3. I will take control. Of myself. My anger is my problem, not Jake’s. I own it. I can only be manipulated if I allow it.
  4. I will not engage in a power struggle with Jake. We both lose. I’ve worked with nurses who use passive aggressive behaviors, “forget” to medicate their patient, wait until change of shift, etc. Failure to treat pain is profoundly wrong, unethical, and unprofessional. Nurses who position themselves as “She (or He) Who is the Gatekeeper of Pain Medication” need to re think how they’re using their authority.
  5. I will be professional. I won’t use stigmatizing terms such as “drug-seeking” and “clock-watcher.” In handoff report, I will simply inform the next RN when Jake’s pain med is due. Jake deserves the same access to pain medication as Edna, my 78 year old female post-op hip surgery patient, and the same dignity and vigilance. (Actually, I have a hunch Edna was a little tipsy when she fell and broke her hip). I will respect Jake as a fellow human being who, for all I know, is doing the best that he can with what he has. As are we all.

Rewind and try Again

New tactic.

Time: 1945. I go into Jake’s room, smile, make eye contact, and ask him if needs his pain med. He is completely taken by surprise, and his face and eyes show it. Someone is treating him like a human being?

As for me? My anger is gone! I’m in control and I feel much kinder towards Jake. I can do this. It just takes improve my nursing practice!

Related- just read a great post by nursebuff on dealing with angry patients with a video of a patient demanding more pain meds

These patients are tough.What’s your experience? What helps you get through your shift? Read Kati Kleber’s excellent post Nurses on the Front Line for more about this topic.

I recommend StaffGarden to get you started with your e-portfolio (online resume). They help nurses find jobs for free. Register with them and they will get you in on exclusive hiring events.  I know them personally and they rock enough for me to partner with them as an affiliate. Meaning I only sponsor products and services that I believe help nurses, and they’re on my Recommend List 🙂


Until next time friend,

Nurse Beth

Come visit me at Ask Nurse Beth career column at for all kinds of  entertaining and informative career questions and answers, and to submit your own question :) Or visit me at and StaffGarden where I also blog. Buzzzzzz…I’m a busy little bee !

ASPMN Position statement from web 10/01/2014

Images courtesy of


article by first published at


About Beth Hawkes (146 Articles)
Nice to meet you! I'm a Nursing Professional Development Specialist in acute care, a writer, speaker and career columnist.

2 Comments on How to Cope With Patients Who Have a Substance Abuse Disorder

  1. Good people have addictions. We are not to judge how or why they got here. We are just to do the care. Many addicts dont give full history’s because of this behavior by the medical profession. Often addicts have to be really really sick before coming in because they know how sick they will be due to the lack of treatment they will receive just to prevent sickness from withdrawl. This can give us nasty and life threatening surprises due to the actual physical response of some addicts. And honestly I dont see them any different than the Diabetic that eats cake or the heart failure patient that doesnt weigh themselves or is non compliant with medications or diet restrictions. Sometimes real life illness coincides with addiction or history of addiction. That is a patient, half naked and afraid or overwhelmed by current situation. How very cruel it is for a nurse to treat with disdain or contempt. I have a clear conversation about regimen and speak up if feeling abused. Refocus our shift to cover goals set together. Simple as I want you comfortable here is what we have-I wont deliver any medication if I assess you as sedated. Validate the MD’s orders via assessment and patient report then inform or collaborate on plan of action.

  2. I used to feel the things you described in this post. But nowadays I feel nothing. This type of thing is more pervasive in hospitals than ever before. Nowadays I’m all about the path of least resistance. What ever you say your pain is, is what it is. If the doctor is willing to order something, I give it. I don’t want to waste time with an act or any BS. Give me a number to chart so I can give you your stuff and be on my way. If the patient is a clock watcher than I will even be there a few minutes early to minimize the call light interruptions.

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