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EGENIS seminar: "An Impossible Science? The quest for biomedical measurement and clinical management in pain medicine", Dr Ariane Hanemaayer (Brandon University)

Egenis seminar series

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, there existed another pandemic known as the opioid crisis. Over the last 30 years the Global North saw a rise in addiction to opiates and opioid related deaths, many of which began as medically prescribed therapeutics to manage both acute and chronic pain (e.g., oxycontin). Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom had all declared national crises related to opiate addiction by 2019. Even now, well into the pandemic, research has continued to demonstrate a worsening of the crisis as a result of public health restrictions.

Event details

The history of the crisis has been written about at length in the USA, while less has been written about Canada and the UK. I will present work from of a larger monograph project that aims to disrupt two common narratives. First, that of prescription opioid use in the USA, which tends to focus on the (criminal) responsibility of profit-seeking corporations and their impact on national policies, the profession of medicine, patients, and individual (greedy) medical practitioners. Second, that pain medicine is a story of intellectual innovation in the fields of surgery and anesthesia, followed by the introduction of pain measurements. 

Taking the opioid crisis as a jumping off point, this presentation will argue that there are three underdeveloped causal factors in the prescription opioid epidemic: the intractability of pain, liberal discourses of human rights, and the regulatory institutions that created the possibility for the crisis to emerge. I will focus primarily on the first, and explain the biomedical quest to develop a sound theory of pain through experimental research. I will situate this knowledge development within the broader societal and institutional events that rendered pain problematic, and the discursive relations of clinical medicine in the long 20th Century that sought to normalize (standardize) pain for clinical intervention. My objective is to demonstrate that the evidence-based framework that came to predominantly define pain rendered it manageable by pharmaceutical intervention. In other words, pharmaceutical corporations such as Purdue (maker of oxycontin) did not reconfigure the field of possible actions to make their drug a success; they seized a strategic opportunity written, in part, by the discourse of science.


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