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In 2011, Jason Herterich injured a muscle in his torso during a basketball game. Little did the Toronto-based athlete know that this injury would dramatically change his life.
In 2014, while working as an energy consultant, the dull ache at the injury site, which had never gone away, got a lot worse. Jason soon began experiencing intense full-body pain and fatigue, as well as depression and anxiety.
"The alarm system was going off in my brain," he says.
Jason was diagnosed with severe fibromyalgia, a condition that often stems from an earlier trauma, and causes non-restorative sleep and chronic pain, and was prescribed several opioids by a family doctor. By 2017, he was virtually bedridden, dizzy and extremely fatigued, and was losing his ability to speak and feed himself.
"My parents thought I was dying," he recalls.
At that time, Jason was referred to Toronto Rehab by his family doctor, starting with a three-day in-patient stay. Doctors there quickly realized that the powerful drugs he was taking to manage his pain were causing his fatigue and low blood pressure.
Over the following months, Jason, now 29, was slowly weaned off his high-dose opioids.
"It was very gradual," he explains, which meant the side effects were minimized. "Six months later, I could walk, drive and go to the swimming pool."
It's the kind of outcome that Dr. Andrea Furlan, a Senior Scientist with the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute and its research arm KITE, and her team of fellow doctors aim to achieve with each patient.
Their mission is to ensure safe, appropriate opioid use in Canada. Having watched with alarm the high rates of opioid prescriptions over the past decade, they're attempting to educate physicians about how to prescribe judiciously while assisting patients already on opioids to taper their doses.