Opioid Treatment and the Chronic Pain Patient

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Today I read the following post

Long-Term Opioid Therapy – What Are the Effects?

Most people who need to take opioids on a long-term basis for chronic non-cancer pain are understandably concerned about what kind of effect it will have on them.  Many have mistakenly believed that opioids destroy both the body and the brain – and possibly even shorten lives.  Although pain management experts have long contended that opioid therapy is not dangerous when properly administered, until now there has been no actual research on long-term opioid use (10 years or more) to back them up.

Enter Forest Tennant, MD, who undertook a first-of-its-kind research study evaluating chronic pain patients who had been receiving opioid therapy for 10 to 35 years.  The results of his study should be extremely encouraging for patients who need long-term opioid therapy as well as their doctors, some of whom may have been hesitant about it.  Tennant concluded that the significant improvements in quality of life and physical functioning from opioid therapy are so positive they outweigh any negative complications, which can be easily managed.

Research Methods

Tennant’s study looked at 16 female and 8 male chronic pain patients between 30 and 79 years of age.  Their chronic pain conditions were:

Neuropathies and Arthropathies – 29.2%
Spinal Degeneration – 25%
Abdominal Adhesions or nNeuropathies – 20.8%
Fibromyalgia – 12.5%
Headache – 8.3%
Hip Necrosis –4.2%

The subjects had all been receiving continuous opioid therapy for 10 to 35 years.  All were taking a long-acting form of morphine, oxycodone, fentanyl or methadone and one or more short-acting opioids for breakthrough pain or pain flares.  They all also took additional medications such as muscle relaxants, sleep aids, hormone replacements and dietary supplements.

Study Results

Almost all of the patients (22 of 24) said their pain had permanently decreased over time.  And the vast majority (20 of 24) felt their opioids still provided the same relief as when they started treatment.  All of the patients  reported one or more functions or activities they can do now that they couldn’t do prior to beginning opioid therapy (i.e., get out of bed everyday, take walks, shop or visit friends).

Several new medical conditions developed in the group over the 10+ year period, such as hormone abnormalities, weight gain, tooth decay, tachycardia, hypertension, osteoporosis, hyperlipidemia, and diabetes.  There was no clear way to determine whether these conditions were caused by the pain, the opioid therapy, the natural aging process, or were just inherent in the patients; however, all of the conditions could easily be medically managed.

All but one of the males in the study experienced lowered serum testosterone, a known complication of opioid therapy, which can be controlled by hormone replacement therapy.

Notably, there were no neurologic complications including dementia, hyperalgesia, tremor or seizures.  Nor were there any liver, kidney, or gastrointestinal complications, except for minor constipation.
Conclusions

Rather than causing serious health problems, Tennant suggests that because of the decrease in pain, opioids may actually allow or even promote neurologic healing.  He goes on to suppose that opioid therapy may prevent a number of medical complications of pain and also may prevent early death due to the over-stimulation of the pituitary-adrenal-axis or possibly electrical stimulation produced by damaged nerves.  Tennant acknowledges that this is a small study and states that much additional study is needed to determine cause and effect of medical conditions in opioid-maintained patients.

Finally, Tennant concludes, “Even though the number of patients evaluated here is relatively small, the great improvement in their quality of life and physical functioning is so positive and the complications of the therapy so easily managed that long-term opioid therapy should continue to be provided and evaluated.”  End of article


I wish this information was more readily available to patients who are considering pursuing opiate treatment for their pain as well as to provide correct information about narcotics to the general public.  Physicians are using many different types of medications to treat chronic pain disorders and some of them have shown promise in treating chronic pain.  What many people don’t realize is that many of these other medications have more side effects and medication interactions than narcotics.

Opiates are still a main stay of treatment for chronic pain patients and there are good reasons for this.  Although opiates have become a totum of evil due to a  massive media push claiming that opiates  by their very existence have caused a rise in prescription drug abuse.  Opiates of themselves are not evil and it is more of a reflection of the culture, change in family dynamics etc. that are the cause for a “rise” in drug abuse involving prescription narcotics.  This phenoma is not because of sudden lax rules in prescribing narcotics by physicians or not the fact that narcotic prescriptions are on the rise.

When I think about when I was growing up in the 70’s, doctors were more lax about prescribing narcotics then and narcotics were available.  There is a rise of availability of narcotics strictly due to their illegal status because the illegal drug business is profitable.  Perhaps because of the constant portrayal of street drugs as “evil” more people have taken to “abusing” prescription pain medication because it seems more socially acceptable and the product received in deemed to be safer.  Narcotics are not harmful to patients who take them as prescribed under a doctor’s supervision. There has been no study that proves that long-term narcotic use is harmful to the patient’s internal organs.  Studies actually show more damage to patient organs from continuation of chronic pain.  New studies involving chronic pain show that it is different from acute pain and the result of continuing chronic pain can have a devastating effect on the mental and physical well-being of a person.

The truth is that thousands of people suffer from chronic pain and bad media press, increased governmental regulation and shift of  the War on Drugs to prescription medication  has made it more difficult for patients who suffer from chronic pain to receive the treatment they need to deal with their illness.

Insulin is not with held from diabetics and so in the same way opiates should not be with held from patients who suffer from chronic pain.

Because narcotics have received such a bad rap, it is hard for people who do not have chronic pain or are an advocate for a loved one or person that has chronic pain to understand that receiving narcotics under a doctor’s supervision does not equal drug abuse.  Any person who has chronic pain and takes narcotics will eventually become physically dependent on the medication.  It may surprise people to know that many other drugs cause dependency such as anti depressants.  That is why doctors are careful to wean their patients off of anti depressants.  If you do not believe that withdrawal occurs for these patients, then talk to a few people who have been on a certain antidepressant for a long time and went off of the medication cold turkey.

Drug dependency does not equal addiction.  Addiction requires a psychological craving for the drug and most people who take opioids as prescribed do not develop a psychological dependence.  Many doctors have confused a patient’s request for a higher level of pain medication as drug seeking behavior when it is actually a sign that the patient’s pain is not under control.

The War On Drugs for all its good intentions has not reduced the amount of illegal drug traffic.  It has created many jobs for people in law enforcement, courts and the prison system.  But, the government still has the same problem that they had when they tried to prohibit alcohol.  People want to be able to use these substances as they do alcohol and nothing the government can do will decrease that desire. I am not saying that making all drug use legal will solve all problems regarding drug abuse.  I do not know if that would be possible in our society.  By criminalizing drug use  criminal industries will naturally look to drugs as a way to obtain profit just as they did when there was a prohibition on alcohol.

For the War on Drugs to work, people would have to change their minds about the way they feel about their personal right to use what substances they desire in their daily life.  The media wants everyone to believe that if the government did not “control” drug use that there would be a massive apocalyptic  like wave of drugged out zombies who would destroy everything near and dear to the law-abiding citizen’s heart.  The problem with this is that there just isn’t any proof that this would be so.

I’ve seen recent so called documentaries about the plight of opium addicted women and children flooding the plains of the U.S. as pioneers progressed towards unclaimed country in the 19th and early 20th century.  Yes people did become physically addicted to opium and cocaine.  Also, snake oil salesmen sold products to people that could harm or even kill them.  It was the original intent of the FDA to protect people from falling prey to these snake oil salesmen. The truth is when almost anyone who likes to do genealogy  searches for information about ancestors such as Great Uncle Grover or Great Grandmother Pearl, they usually find brief accounts of  people struggling to survive on the farm or ranch mixed with amusing anecdotes.  Rarely, does anyone find personal accounts recalling tales of long-suffering drug addiction and family interventions among the common folks.

Those heart breaking accounts of families being torn apart by drug abuse and painful intervention are recent occurrences are certainly real ,but they  have been mined by the media to feed the habit of the general population for reality based television.

I’m not saying that substance abuse isn’t a problem.  I am saying that things shouldn’t have gotten  to the point that the government has become so involved the Drug War that regulations and red tape are surrounding chronic pain patients and their doctors, causing doctors to practice defensive medicine and keep many chronic pain patients from having a decent quality of life.

How has it happened that there is much more government interference in the way that physicians practice medicine in regard to prescribing narcotics?  The DEA, not having much success in winning the War on Drugs, in my opinion  has switched to softer targets.  Because when it comes down to it in any law enforcement situation be it convictions by the district attorney or tickets written by the police, numbers count.  High numbers of convictions or in the case of the DEA, documentation that they are making a difference in decreasing the business of “illegal drug use”  means success and more funding.

The following is a policy statement issued by the DEA regarding the wonderful ways they are changing regulations to protect against drug abuse of prescription pain medications and how their new regulations actually make it easier for the doctor to prescribe schedule II narcotics to the patient.  Also, they mention according to their statistics they really haven’t reprimanded very many doctors and so their impact of pursuing doctor’s in their medical practices is small.  It is explained at the following site http://www.justice.gov/dea/speeches/s090606.html.

Many physicians and advisors in the health care industry are concerned these acts by the DEA may only be window dressing in light of  tougher regulations  proposed by the FDA.

The real story is that new FDA regulations include the possibility of requiring doctors and allied health personnel to take special training classes for each scheduled narcotic  they provide that is on the government’s list.  See http://updates.pain-topics.org/2009/10/dea-opioid-rems-intimidating-future.html regarding the possible future and scope of this training.   News about further requirements from the FDA on this matter are supposed to be published today, December 4, 2009.  I have also read in various blogs that the DEA has a future proposal in which they would take the list of patients who receive schedule II narcotics and ration the amount of medication that they may receive.  The very thought horrifies me.

Now I will talk about doctors doing “business as usual” with the DEA.  The DEA since the 90’s has taken the bold step of raiding doctor’s offices where they suspect illegal drug trafficking. There were some actual “pill mills” but those were disposed of quickly and easily. It is true that the DEA has not raided “many” physician’s offices but they took pains to raid doctor’s offices in a way to make an example to other physicians.  They first selected small and rural physician practices in which physicians prescribed “a more than average” amount of pain medications.  I am not just talking about time released scheduled narcotics but narcotics such as Lortab and Percocet as well.

A family practice doctor in a rural community may look like he or she is prescribing “more” narcotics but actually he or she is seeing the same patients more often over a life time so if the doctor had several elderly patients with chronic pain conditions, it would appear he or she was prescribing more narcotics than the average physician.

The tactics of the DEA actually would appear silly in their draconian nature if the results of their actions were not so sad.  They have targeted certain physician practices as described above.  They are already provided with lists of patients who have narcotic prescriptions filled, as well as what pharmacy the prescriptions were filled,  by what physician and when the prescriptions were filled.  With this information, they were able to do routine background checks on patients as well as find patterns of any patient who had narcotics filled at different pharmacies, by different doctors within a certain period of time.

Any patients of the doctor’s practice that the feds intended to review who  had a history of drug related violations or had patterns indicating “doctor shopping” for narcotics were contacted by the feds.  The feds threatened prosecution of various drug offenses and offered “deals” to these patients if they would “rat” on their physicians.  Ratting met anything from simple statements that the doctors provided them a prescription for narcotics to confessions that the doctor had actually known about their drug history and “drug shopping” activities an chose to ignore it when giving them a narcotic prescription.

A doctor can be very prudent in his practice and still not know about a patient’s drug history, recreational drug abuse or “doctor shopping” involving other doctors because they only know what patients are willing to tell them.  Most doctors if they suspect a history of drug abuse or “doctor shopping” will take appropriate measures in dealing with these type of patient.  There is no reason to think that any prudent businessman wouldn’t do so and especially doctors who have taken an oath to practice medicine.   Yes, the primary focus of many doctors has leaned towards  financial advancement.  With Medicare fraud, regulations by insurance companies and new Joint Commission requirements, doctors are not going to risk their practice by prescribing narcotics to people who they know would abuse them.

After the DEA obtained information about certain patients and “confessions”, they would approce the doctors with the evidence and ask them if they would prefer to settle out of court or face a public jury trial.

Most doctor’s settled out of court and were given reprimands.  Those brave courageous doctors who chose to fight the good fight and bring their case to court found themselves confronted with over eager district attorneys who were willing to prosecute to the fullest extent of the law and beyond.  Most of these doctors lost their medical practices and their licenses.  Many chronic pain patients who lived in small communities were stranded without a way to obtain more pain medication.  Other doctors in the area were certainly not going to run the risk of their fellow fallen physician.

Word soon spread to other physicians across the country.  This caused a wide spread panic among physicians.  Some general practitioners and even pain specialists decided to get out of the business of prescribing opioids.  Other pain management doctors consulted their lawyers and started enforcing strict guidelines for their patients to follow if the patient wanted to continue opioid treatment.  The first things to arrive were physician patient pain contracts.  Patients had to sign lengthy documents in which they promised to be willing to undergo random drug testing, not to engage in any recreational drug use, to inform the doctor if they received any pain medications by any other physicians.  Any means all pain medicines down to a lortab given to you by your dentist after a dental procedure.

These rules were up to interpretations by the doctor.  Some doctors did as a paper exercise but some doctors used the pain contract to engage on some kind of power trip.  I don’t know if they were seduced by power or extremely paranoid but I have read multiple cases of patients being discharged because they did not inform the physician before they took a pain pill prescribed to them by their dentists and when they mentioned it off handedly to the nurse during the next appointment, they were discharged from the doctor’s care.  Once, I waited four hours in the doctor’s waiting room for a urine drug screen test.  The receptionist kept telling me to be a good patient and sit down.  Finally, I was discovered by a nurse as they were locking up for the day.

If a patient is discharged by a pain management physician for any reason, it is definitely a black mark on their record and it makes it more difficult for a patient to find another pain management physicians because the pm doctors do not want to take on the liability of someone who has been discharged from care.

New regulations to be enforced by the DEA  and FDA provide more red tape to gag the physician from providing proper opiate treatment to their chronic pain patients.  For information regarding requirements regarding classes that physicians must take see the following http://www.dhss.mo.gov/BNDD/BNDDnewsletter.pdf.

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4 Responses to “Opioid Treatment and the Chronic Pain Patient”

  1. Margrett Plaxco Says:

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    • selchietracker Says:

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      • Mena Says:

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