Why Are We Treating Pain The Same As We Did During The Civil War?

civil war painIt is no secret that there is an opioid problem in the United States. It seems like there is a new report being published every week on the problems with opioids in this country. This week the government published data on the number of emergency room visits related to opioid use in a single year.

The data shows roughly a 100 percent increase in the last ten years in the number of hospital visits and admissions related to opioid problems. Not surprising is that despite some differences from state to state, in general, the problem affects everyone equally – male and female, rich and poor – just like any other addiction. The focus of most data being published is on opioid addiction. Unfortunately, rarely is someone talking about some of the reasons behind the problem, especially as it relates to how the United States treats pain.

How The US Treats Pain

It is really no surprise that there is an opioid problem in the United States. Pain is a very complex set of medical issues, but unlike diabetes or cancer, very little money has been spent on any aspect of pain as a medical problem, and medical school and physician training in understanding and managing pain is virtually nonexistent. Research sponsored by any government or industry sources is minimal compared to all other areas, maybe 2 percent of all money spent by the National Institute of Health and there is no comprehensive strategy to look at treating pain. Most importantly, the tools used to treat pain are the same tools we used at the time of Civil War – opioids. Most other diseases from hypertension to diabetes and cancer over the last fifty years have seen major advancements in how we treat these conditions, but not pain.

On top of the publishing of new data of how many people are being affected by opioids, the news media is full of sensational information on every aspect of the opioid epidemic. Time magazine this week had information on how drug companies and drug treatment centers are profiting from opioid problems. One of the biggest lobbying groups for money and guidelines on opioids are addiction specialists and drug treatment centers; just a slight conflict of interest. Then the sensational news moves to all the individuals who have become addicts and the problems of addicts. Unfortunately, opioid addiction and how it affects individual lives is not really significantly different from other addictions from food to alcohol, it’s just less glamorous. The latest highlight in the news is the potent drugs and overdoses, and how just touching some of these illegal drugs or using for the first time can cause overdoses.

Opioids are a problem in the United States and more data does not help solve the problem – it just makes it sensational. The real issue that is being ignored is the issue behind opioids and how we treat pain. Most of the pain treatments available date back to before the Civil War. Pain is extremely complex, and to solve the opioid issue the United States needs to get serious about finding better pain management tools and invest in them.

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.  

Pain Catastrophizing and Chronic Pain Care

Pain CatastrophizingWhen it comes to managing chronic pain, it’s imperative to take as much care of your mental health as it is your physical health. Ignoring your mental health can lead to more negative attitudes towards your pain, which can lead to even more problems according to a new study.

A new report out of the Stanford University School of Medicine suggests that individuals who negatively fixate on their symptoms have been found to report greater pain intensity and are more likely to be prescribed opioids. Interestingly, the association was much higher in females than it was in men.

“When it comes to opioid prescriptions, pain catastrophizing has a greater effect on the likelihood for having a prescription in women than it does in men,” said medical student and lead researcher Yasamin Sharifzadeh.

Pain Catastrophizing

According to researchers, “pain catastrophizing” is defined as the cascade of negative thoughts and emotions in response to actual or anticipated pain. When you begin to let these negative thoughts continue to build and take hold over your pain, it can actually amplify the pain process and lead to greater pain and increased disability. Previous studies have shown that pain catastrophizing has been linked to increased pain sensations, but this is the first study to find a correlation between it and an increased likelihood of being prescribed opioids.

For their research, Sharifzadeh and her team analyzed clinical data from more than 1,800 patients with chronic pain. After analyzing the data and parsing out the results between genders, researchers came to an interesting conclusion.

“In men, it is pain intensity that dictates whether or not they are prescribed opioids,” Sharifzadeh said. “However, in women, there is a more nuanced issue where relatively low levels of both pain catastrophizing and pain intensity are associated with opioid prescription. Pain catastrophizing and pain intensity are working together in determining if a woman has an opioid prescription.”

This is especially problematic when you consider that women are more likely to suffer from chronic pain, be prescribed pain relievers and given higher doses for longer periods than men, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, by recognizing this correlation, doctors can help to mitigate this risk.

“If physicians are aware of these gender-specific differences, they can tailor their treatment,” Sharifzadeh said. “When treating chronic pain patients — especially women — they should analyze pain in its psychological aspect as well as its physical aspect.”

If you feel like your mental health is fighting a losing battle with chronic pain, reach out to your doctor. Contact Dr. Cohn today.

Does Chronic Pain Increase Likelihood Of Cognitive Decline?

dementia pillsRecently, a new report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggests that there may be a link between chronic pain and the eventual onset of cognitive issues. But do these findings really suggest that chronic pain leads to an increased risk of cognitive decline, or is there something bigger going on? We take a closer look in today’s blog.

For their study, researchers at the University of California at San Francisco decided to look at how chronic pain impacted a person’s mental health. They began by examining data collected on more than 10,000 individuals over the age of 60 who were taking part in a different nationwide study. Patients in that study were surveyed about their pain scores and cognition in 1998 and 2000. Patients were then monitored over the next decade.

Chronic Pain and Brain Health

After looking at the data at the end of the study, researchers found that individuals who said they were persistently bothered by moderate or severe pain declined 9.2 percent faster in cognitive and memory tests over the next 10 years compared to those who said they were not in pain. Moreover, patients who complained about persistent pain exhibited a 7.7 percent greater chance of developing dementia than patients who did not experience regular pain.

“A persistent report of moderate to severe pain, which may reflect chronic pain, is associated with accelerated cognitive decline and increased dementia probability in a large population-representative data set of elders,” wrote first author Elizabeth Whitlock, MD, a postdoctoral fellow in the UCSF Department of Anesthesia and Perioperative Care. “Clinicians should be aware of this association, which persisted after extensive statistical adjustment for confounding health and demographic factors. Patients reporting ongoing pain may be at higher risk for current and incident cognitive impairment and physical debility.”

Pain Can Compound Mental Health Issues

The authors go on to make another key point about the problems associated with persistent pain and the onset of cognitive problems like dementia. Since individuals with pain oftentimes take opioids or other painkillers, cognitive decline can make it difficult for the patient to remember to take their pills or to get the correct dosage, which can be downright dangerous.

“Elderly people need to maintain their cognition to stay independent,” said Whitlock. “Up to one in three older people suffer from chronic pain, so understanding the relationship between pain and cognitive decline is an important first step toward finding ways to help this population.”

However, the study says the results don’t paint a perfect picture of the link between chronic pain and cognitive decline. Since a good deal of patients are on a variety of different pain medications to help control their pain, researchers said that the pills could be contributing to dementia and other cognitive problems, and pain may not play a role.

Hopefully future studies will look closer at the role opioids may play in cognitive decline. Regardless, this study is just more proof that we need to be investing more time and energy into seriously working to find solutions to the myriad of chronic pain problems in the US and throughout the world.

Vitamin D’s Role In Controlling Chronic Pain

vitamin d painWhen it comes to controlling chronic pain, we all know how important it is to get a restful night’s sleep, but that’s easier said than done when you’re in regular pain. However, new research suggests that adding something to the mix may help control pain and provide you with a better night’s sleep.

According to research published in the Journal of Endocrinology increasing the levels of Vitamin D in the body can help manage chronic pain conditions, including arthritis. The correlation between the sun vitamin and pain control is no secret, as previous research has suggested that the vitamin can help inhibit the body’s inflammatory response, which sometimes triggers pain sensations. Other research has shown that Vitamin D deficiency has been linked to sleep disorders, so correcting the problem may lead to a better night’s sleep, and in turn, less pain.

New Findings on Vitamin D

The newest findings regarding Vitamin D are that when used in conjunction with a good night’s sleep, it can actually make other treatment methods more effective. This means that patients who increase their levels of Vitamin D and who partake in physical therapy for their chronic pain condition may notice more pain relief than individuals who only partake in physical therapy.

“We can hypothesize that suitable vitamin D supplementation combined with sleep hygiene may optimize the therapeutic management of pain-related diseases, such as fibromyalgia,” said Dr. Monica Levy Andersen, who led the review.

They concluded that pain management specialists and primary care physicians should consider asking patients about their Vitamin D intake or begin monitoring it in order to see if increasing intake on a daily basis helps to mitigate symptoms from certain pain conditions. Now, it’s important to remember that simply taking a Vitamin D supplement isn’t going to take your pain from a level 8 to a level 2, but there’s a chance that when paired with other treatment options that it could help take your symptoms down a level or two. It’s certainly something worth exploring.