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Papers of the Week

2020 Sep 04

Med Anthropol

‘Acute-on-chronic’: Emergency Affect and the One-way Staircase of Pharmaceutical Escalation.


The opioid epidemic in the United States is often portrayed as leading to a "pendulum swing" from indiscriminate prescribing toward appropriate use. This portrayal imagines rational-ethical physicians trying to resist irrational-manipulative patients and pharmaceutical companies. Drawing on an ethnography of pain management in U.S. hospital and clinic settings, I suggest instead that chronic pain generates a constantly renewed "emergency affect," a mutual experience for providers and patients that polarizes decisions toward either medication escalation or patient abandonment. Understanding this "emergency affect" can help provide a path forward through the opioid epidemic to embrace the discomfort of pain management.