Overprescribing Opioids Is A Problem In Our Own Backyard

opioid problems mnNew findings published in the Annals of Surgery suggests that clinicians at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester were routinely writing opioid prescriptions for surgical patients that exceeded regulatory guidelines currently being drafted by the state of Minnesota. The findings also uncovered significant differences in opioid prescribing among the Mayo clinics in Rochester, Arizona and Florida, as well as within surgical procedures.

Study senior author Elizabeth Habermann, who also serves as the scientific director of surgical outcomes research at Mayo, said the findings help highlight where improvements can be made.

“In light of the opioid epidemic, physicians across the country know overprescribing is a problem, and they know there is an opportunity to improve,” said senior author Elizabeth Habermann, scientific director of surgical outcomes research at Mayo. “This is the first step in determining what is optimal for certain surgeries and, eventually, the individual patient.”

Opioid Overdoses In America

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of deaths involving prescription opioid overdoses have nearly quadrupled since 2000. In fact, more than 90 people died each day from either a prescription opioid or heroin overdose in 2015 alone.

Study co-author Dr. Robert Cima said doctors have been so focused on ensuring patients have their pain minimized as much as possible after surgery that they often don’t consider the possible long-term side effects of the prescriptions they’re filling.

“For the last two decades, there had been such a focus at the national level on ensuring patients have no pain,” said Dr. Cima, a colorectal surgeon and chair of surgical quality at Mayo Clinic’s Rochester campus. “That causes overprescribing, and, now, we’re seeing the negative effects of that.”

I have no doubt that the Mayo Clinic will adhere to the new guidelines being drafted at the state level in short order, but this story speaks to the larger issue of just how unregulated opioids are at some of the nation’s best hospitals. And if it’s happening there, you can bet it’s happening to a larger degree at lesser care centers.

However, these findings do cast light on the problem and should help push us towards a solution, but it’s not necessarily going to come from the top down. It needs to start with doctors. We need take time with each patient and push them towards active treatment techniques instead of passive treatments like opioids. Opioids certainly have their role in pain management, but they shouldn’t be over-relied on, as it appears they are.

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.

Opioids and a Healthy Mindset For Managing Pain

Pain MindsetThe most common treatment option in America for individuals suffering from chronic pain is opioids or pain medications. According to statistics, the US is home to 5% of the world’s population yet we consume 80% of the world’s opiates. Our pain isn’t any different than pain felt by someone in Africa or Asia, so why do we rely so heavily on opioids?

According to Dr. Aneesh Singla, it’s because we have the wrong mindset when it comes to setting expectations for opioid effectiveness.

The Myth of Zero Pain

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that the number of prescription opioids sold in the US since 1999 has quadrupled, yet the number of Americans reporting pain hasn’t changed. That’s because opioids are viewed as a solution, not as an aid to simply decrease pain while other treatments are performed. Opioids will never cure a chronic pain condition on their own, yet we expect them to rid us of all our pain. In a recent article, Dr. Singla said this problem can sometimes be traced back to the physician, who fails to explain that a chronic pain situation is not a zero sum game.

“I believe that pain is protective to us and that opiates will never cure pain 100%; so we set expectations for perhaps 50% pain relief from opiates, so that opioids are not overused in search of 100% pain relief,” said Dr. Singla. “I tell my patients that a 50% reduction in pain is a reasonable goal when treating chronic pain, and we seek this with multiple treatment options, not simply through opiates.”

There are two key takeaways from that quote. First, that the main goal of pain care treatment needs to be a reduction in pain, not its elimination. If you’ve been dealing with chronic back pain for years, it’s unreasonable to think that treatment will completely cure the problem and leave you with zero pain or discomfort, so the focus needs to be on making every day or every week less painful than the previous. The second point is that opiates alone will never solve this problem.

Opioids and Pain Expectations

We talk about pain medications on this blog and on our social channels a lot, and it’s interesting because the topic often brings out a knee-jerk response from different people. When we write articles about painkiller abuse or that pain will never be solved by a pill alone, many people are quick to defend their responsible opiate use and feel that we are attacking individuals who truly need pain pills to help them get through their day. The problem is that knee-jerk reaction couldn’t be farther from the message we’re trying to convey when talking about addiction, abuse or painkillers in general.

Opioids can be a key component to effectively managing chronic pain. We aren’t against opioids at all. What we’re trying to show in these articles is that our current views on them are misguided and that they need to be re-evaluated. It starts with the pharmaceutical companies who only care about their bottom line; It trickles down to the doctors who over-prescribe or under-educate patients on what they should expect from the opioids and how they can be used in conjunction with other treatment modalities, and it ends with the patient who decides to take an extra pill because their back is more painful than normal because they’ve skipped their last three physical therapy sessions.

Managing pain is not easy, and opioids play a vital role, but we need to do a better job of setting expectations and pairing pills with active rehab options to ensure the best results for our patients.

How Unregulated Opioid Use Can Lead To Heroin Addiction

Opioids pills heroinIn the 1960s, the drug culture was known for psychedelics, LSD and marijuana. Eventually, some of those users sought a stronger high, and that led them down the path to heroin. At least that was the message pushed by the government in its fight against drugs.

Heroin was actually not that common and it was often a drug of addiction found in Vietnam veterans due to its availability in that region. Intense drug programs and interventions to rid production significantly reduced heroin use in the U.S. from the 1970’s through about 2000. In the 1990’s, the era of everyone needing opioid pain management began and along came Oxycontin. The quick and easy option for most doctors to treat pain was to write a prescription for the magical opioid pill. For the last ten years, we now have discovered the rising tide of opioid addiction and now deaths from overdoses is catching up to the number from auto accidents.

Link Between Pills and Heroin

Oxycontin first came on the market in the 1990’s and was extensively marketed as a safe drug for management of pain. The manufacturer would fly physicians to resorts, wine and dine them, and then try to hire them to lecture other doctors on the wonder of their drug. By about 2005, some of the problems with addiction were becoming evident. The government convinced the manufacturer to develop a formulation that would deter abuse by making anti-crush pills, and these came on the market around 2010. It was still a potent drug, but it was not as fun to take and the pills became expensive on the black market. However, the damage had been done and now the main way to treat pain was with opioids, any many people had become addicted to the powerful medication.

A study recently done by the University of Pennsylvania and the Rand Corporation explains why heroin has now become a problem. The development of the new formulation of Oxycontin made this drug more expensive and harder to abuse. Heroin has become cheap, more pure, and once you’re hooked on opioids, it is now easier and less expensive to obtain. So once a person is addicted to pain pills, the cheaper route to get high and prevent drug withdrawal is to use heroin.

Now the latest trick for those with an opioid addiction to get high is to use heroin or oxycodone that is mixed with another synthetic opioid like fentanyl or cor-fentanyl which are a hundred to over a thousand times stronger. These drugs are often been manufactured in China or India, and they can be easily mailed anonymously without much suspicion into the U.S. If mixed wrong, these newer synthetic opioids are often deadly.

Takeaway Points

The message from the opioid crisis is that pain has many ways to be treated, and left unregulated the use of opioids is often more dangerous then helpful. Addiction is a disease; without treatment, some resort to the use of heroin since it is cheap, and many cut that drug with other potent drugs that are deadly.

Stopping the opioid crisis will take time and effort. Treating pain is not just about taking opioids – that has led to the addiction crisis. Money needs to be spent on pain research and the development of better pain management strategies. A third of the population has issues with pain, making it more prevalent than heart disease, cancer and diabetes combined. To solve the problem of pain and drug abuse, a concerted government investment into pain research and better medical management is needed.

Why Chronic Pain Patients Feel Targeted By Opioid Crackdowns

pain pill overdoseAs opioid overdoses continue to rise in the US, the government, lawmakers and medical personnel are all trying to figure out the best way to reduce these unnecessary deaths. Obviously restricting access to opioids would reduce the number of people who can get their hands on them, and in turn reduce overdose deaths, but it would also unfairly target people who need the pills. People like those suffering from chronic pain. So it’s understandable to see why when lawmakers propose strict rules for who can access these medications that chronic pain sufferers feel like they are being targeted and singled out.

It’s a tough balance to strike, and unfortunately it seems that as a nation we are more focused on what is easy and cheap instead of what will really address the root problem. Putting a band-aid over a large gash might stop some bleeding, but the wound won’t close correctly without stitches. Simply restricting access opioids and painkillers might stop some abusers from getting the pills, but it won’t solve the whole problem. We need to put some stitches in place.

Solving The Opioid Crisis

We’re not going to sit here and pretend we have all the answers for solving the problem of opioid addiction and overdose, but like we said above, simply restricting access is not going to solve the problem, and many innocent people who rely on those medications may no longer be able to access them. Instead, here are some steps that will help address the root problem.

1. Doctor Education – The vast majority of doctors understand that opioids do not address the root problem, but sometimes they are confused by a diagnosis or have seen other treatments fail and they fall back on them. Other doctors cut corners and prescribe pills freely and dangerously. We need to provide better understanding at the top level of how these drugs should be used, how to spot signs of abuse and how to ensure patients are safely taking their medications so that overdoses don’t occur.

2. Systemic Pressure – This problem will be harder to solve, but in many cases doctors are told to see as many patients as possible. If a doctor is feeling overwhelmed or rushed to see a number of patients, they can sometimes fall back on easy solutions like opioids. Doctors need to take their time with each and every patient and ensure they are giving them the best care possible. It’s possible the best care will involve opioids, but it should also involve therapy, exercise and regular abuse checks.

3. Patient Education – Patients also lack understanding of opioids and their abuse potential. Opioids are not a magic pill that will cure your pain, but they can provide temporary relief so other rehab techniques like exercise, swimming or physical therapy are more bearable. Opioids are a passive treatment, and they need to be paired with an active treatment option for best results. Patients also need to learn the warning signs of abuse for themselves and for loved ones who may have access to their pills.

4. Pill Technology – Medical researchers are looking into new abuse-deterrent opioids. They are creating pills that can’t be crushed or that become gooey if a user tries to extract the solution for injection. Other pills come in an extended release form and can’t be manipulated to give an elevated or intense high. More research into abuse deterrent options could prove useful.

Simply saying we need to restrict access to opioids will not solve the problem, and many chronic pain sufferers will be affected instead of those who are actually abusing the pills. That’s why so many patients feel targeted by these proposals. It won’t be easy to reverse this trend, but if we put in the time and money, it can be done.