JAMA’s Approach To Chronic Pain Is Misguided

chronic pain opioidsEvery week, the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) publishes short articles that address important topics in medicine. Last week one of the articles was on taking care of chronic pain patients in primary care medical practices.

In the era of opioid abuse, one would think educating primary care physicians on pain would be beneficial. This article unfortunately was a catastrophe. The information on addiction was wrong and the treatment of pain was overly simplistic.

Understanding Opioid Addiction

Opioid addiction is a significant issue today. Yearly over 30,000 people die due to opioid-related incidents. This is nearly as many people as those who die in automobile accidents. However, addiction is an illness in itself, and of all the people who use opioids, only a small percentage of about 5-7 percent at most ever become addicted. Addiction to opioids is no different then other addictions and requires psychological intervention and medical detoxification.

Chronic pain is a very complex disease, and has many causes. There often is not a single problem involved and finding solutions to improve the issues present takes a deep medical understanding of many different fields. One must be able to identify and understand all the medical problems contributing to pain. Having a solid knowledge of rheumatology, internal medicine, orthopedics, neurology, and musculoskeletal medicine are just a few of the skills needed in pain medicine. In reality, it does not matter how people progress to a chronic pain condition, what matters is that 1/3 of the adult population has problems with chronic pain.

The article in JAMA recommends that primary care physicians need to see the pain patients frequently, with shared decision making, compassionate care, promoting shared decision making, and use an interdisciplinary approach. They should work with motivational interviewing, and have physical therapists and psychologists in the office to work with them and the patients.

This article was written by physicians from the University of Michigan, and pardon my language, is crap. From experience, these physicians are in academics and they are tremendously sheltered from the pressures of most practice situations. Most primary care physicians have 15 minutes at the most to see a patient and they do not have any other support like psychologists in their practice or physical therapy. At the University of Michigan, pain patients are also referred out to the Physical Medicine physicians. The advice in this article is of extremely low use.

What We Should Be Doing

Primary care physicians need far more practical advice on management of chronic pain. First off, chronic pain is not a single medical condition but most commonly it is the response to multiple medical problems. The role of primary care medicine is, more importantly, to identify that there is a problem and help quarterback and guide a patient to the correct treating physicians. With limited time for each visit, send the patient to experts in pain management such as a physical medicine physician who actually has the appropriate training and resources to treat complex problems.

Secondly, avoid the quick fix by trying to hand out medication, especially opioids and many of the other drugs on the market since developing a comprehensive management strategy is necessary. Again this type of management is not really primary care and working with a specialist is more productive. Once a specialist has developed a successful treatment approach, be willing to take over and maintain the program. Third, realize pain is extremely complex, often with no cure, and the goal of treatment is to improve function and make the symptoms more manageable. The best advice for primary care physicians is to learn who are the knowledgeable and successful pain management experts in your area and use their expertise to help manage these complex patients.  

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Thomas Cohn, MD

Interventional pain doctor helping Minnesotans manage back, neck, foot, and other pain. Board-certified in physical medicine and rehabilitation with additional board-certification in pain management from the American Board of Anesthesiology (ABA), the American Board of Interventional Pain Physicians (ABIPP) and the American Board of Pain Medicine (ABPM).

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