The Pain Management Movement

 In the late 1990’s, organizations like the American Pain Society and the American Academy of Pain Management declared that doctors in the U.S. were doing a lousy job of treating pain, and were under-prescribing opioid pain medications, due to a misguided fear of causing addiction. As a result, there was a national push to treat pain more aggressively. Some states even passed pain initiatives, mandating treatment for pain. Lawsuits were brought against doctors who didn’t adequately treat pain. The Joint Commission on the Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JACHO), the organization that inspects hospitals to assess their quality of care, made the patient’s level of pain the “fifth vital sign,” after body temperature, blood pressure, heart rate, and respiratory rate. Pain management specialists encouraged more liberal prescribing of pain medication. These experts told their primary care colleagues that the chance of developing addiction from opioids prescribed for pain was about one percent.

With these limited facts, the pain management movement was off and running. Many pain management specialists, some of whom were paid speakers for the drug companies that manufactured powerful opioid pain medications, spoke at seminars about the relative safety of opioids, used long term for chronic pain. Pain management specialists taught these views to small town family practice and general medicine doctors, who were relatively inexperienced in the treatment of either pain or addiction.

The problem was…the specialists were wrong.

These specialists, in their well-intentioned enthusiasm to relieve suffering, used flawed data when reciting the risk for addiction. The one percent figure came from a study looking at patients treated in the hospital for acute pain, which is quite different from treating outpatients with chronic non cancer pain. (1) In other words, they compared apples to oranges.

To many addiction specialists, an addiction risk of only one percent seemed improbable, since the general population has an addiction risk estimated from six to twelve percent. Surely, being prescribed pain pills would not lessen the risk for addiction. Yet the one percent figure was often cited by many pain management professionals, as well as by the representatives of the drug companies selling strong opioids. 

Some pain management specialists even took a scolding tone when they spoke of some primary care physicians’ reluctance to prescribe strong opioids. They often muddied the waters, and grouped patients with cancer pain, acute pain, and chronic non-cancer pain together, and spoke of them as one group. This can feel insulting to doctors who, though reluctant to prescribe opioids endlessly for a patient with chronic non cancer pain, are adamant about treating end-of-life cancer pain aggressively with opioids. No compassionate physician limits opioids for patients with cancer pain or with acute, short term pain. However, chronic non-cancer pain is different, with different outcomes than acute pain or cancer pain.

 We didn’t learn from history, or we would have learned that when many people have access to opioids, many will develop addiction.  We are scientifically more advanced than one hundred years ago, but we still have the same reward pathway in the brain. The human organism hasn’t changed physiologically. The present epidemic of opioid addiction is reminiscent of the early part of the twentieth century, just after the Bayer drug company released heroin, which for a short period of time was sold without a prescription, before physicians recognized that over prescription of opioids caused iatrogenic addiction.

 Few pain patients intended to become addicted. Some addicted people blame their doctors for causing their opioid addiction, but most doctors were conscientiously trying to treat the pain reported by their patient, and the pain management experts had told these doctors the risk of addiction was so low they didn’t have to worry about it.

Certainly many patients made bad choices to misuse their medications, either from curiosity or peer influence, pushing them farther over the line into addiction. Patients need to recognize their own contribution to their addiction. But with opioid addiction, as the disease progresses, the addict loses the power of choice that he once had. If the addict is fortunate enough to have a moment of clarity, before the disease progresses too far, he may be able to stop on his own, without treatment.

 By their very nature, opioids produce pleasure. Any time doctors prescribe something that causes pleasure, we should expect addiction to occur. Some people, for whatever reason, feel more pleasure than others when they take opioids, and seem to be at higher risk for addiction. As discussed in previous chapters, genetics, environment, and individual factors all influence this risk.

Opioids treat pain – both physical and emotional. Many of the neuronal pathways in the brain for sensing and experiencing pain are the same for both physical and psychological pain. For example, the brain pathways activated when you drop a hammer on your toe are much the same as when you have to tell your spouse you spent the rent money while gambling. Opioids make both types of pain better. Chronic pain patients with psychological illnesses are at increased risk for inappropriate use of their pain medications.

 In a recent study, the rate of developing true opioid addiction in patients taking opioids for chronic pain was found to be increased fourfold over the risk of non-medicated people. (2) Instead of a one percent incidence, as estimated by pain medicine specialists in the past, it now appears eighteen to forty-five percent of patients maintained long-term on opioids develop true addiction, not mere physical dependency. (3) If this information had been available in the late 1990’s, doctors may have taken more precautions when they prescribed strong opioids for chronic pain.

 Researchers have identified the risk factors for addiction among patients who take opioids long-term (more than three months) for chronic pain. Studies now show that a personal past history of addiction is the strongest predictor of future problems with addiction, as would be expected.  A patient with a family history of addiction is also at increased risk for addiction, as are patients with psychiatric illness of any kind, and younger patients. (4)

However, at the height of the pain control movement, there were no good studies of the addiction risk when opioids were used for more than three months. The little information that did exist was misused, resulting in an incredible underestimation of the risk of addiction in patients with chronic pain, who were treated with opioid medications for more than three months.

 With the momentum of the movement for better control of pain, both acute and chronic, the number of prescriptions for opioid pain pills increased dramatically. In the years from 1997 through 2006, prescription sales of hydrocodone increased 244%, while oxycodone increased 732% during that same time period. Prescription sales for methadone increased a staggering 1177%. (5)

It’s not just patients who are at risk for abuse and addiction. The increased amount of opioids being prescribed meant there was more opioid available to be diverted to the black market. When an addicting drug is made more available, it will be misused more often.

  1. Porter and Jick, New England Journal of Medicine, 302 (2) (Jan. 10, 1980) p. 123.
  2. Michael F. Fleming, Stacey L. Balousek, Cynthia L. Klessig, et al. “Substance Use Disorders in a Primary Care Sample Receiving Daily Opioid Therapy,” Journal of Pain, 207; Vol. 8, issue 7: 573-582.
  3. 7. Steven Passik M.D., Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, Vol. 21 No. 5, (May 2001), pp.359 – 360.
  4. Chou, R, Fanciullo, G, Fine, P, et. al., “Opioid Treatment Guidelines: Clinical guidelines for the use of Chronic Opioid Therapy in chronic, non-cancer pain.” The Journal of Pain, 2009, Vol. 10, No. 2. pp. 113-130

5. Andrea Trescott, MD, Stanford Helm, MD, el. al., “Opioids in the Management of Chronic Non-cancer Pain: An Update of American Society of the Interventional Pain Physicians’ Guidelines,” Pain Physician 2008: Opioids Special Issue: 11:S5 – S 62.

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One response to this post.

  1. Hi There Janaburson,
    On a similar note,, Excruciating pain of the spinal cord may reduce the functional capabilities of the body, hinder the ability to work and lead an independent life. Sports injuries, accidents, falls and a host of other factors can cause trauma which may require immediate medical attention. Fortunately, one needn’t suffer throughout life as there are effective pain management techniques for the spinal cord.
    Good Job!

    Reply

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