Cutbacks in Opioid Prescribing Are Not Working

By Pat Anson, Editor

Where is the evidence that reduced opioid prescribing is lowering rates of addiction and preventing overdose deaths?

Opioid prescribing has been in decline for years, but overdose deaths from heroin and fentanyl are soaring around the country, particularly in the East and Midwest. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported this week that 33,091 people died from opioid overdoses last year, a 16% increase from 2014.

Most of the increase was attributed to heroin and illicit fentanyl. For the first time, deaths involving those illegal opioids now outnumber those from prescription opioids.

Yet doctors remain under enormous pressure from lawmakers, regulators, hospitals, insurers, medical societies and the media to reduce their opioid prescribing. Two recent examples come from healthcare providers in Pennsylvania.

Geisinger Health System, a large healthcare provider with nearly 1,600 physicians serving over three million people in Pennsylvania, is preaching the benefits of reduced prescribing.

"Opioids are not the answer," Mellar Davis, MD, a palliative care physician at Geisinger, said in a news release. "Chronic pain rehabilitation, exercise, cognitive behavioral therapies, acupuncture, yoga or tai chi are all better options than opioids.”

PinnacleHealth Medical Group, a smaller network of more than 200 primary care providers in central Pennsylvania, released an update on the opioid reduction program it began in 2014. Opioid prescribing by PinnacleHealth physicians has fallen by 20 percent, and a spokesperson says there is some evidence the program is helping to reduce overdoses in its coverage area.

“According to our internal data, our admissions for overdoses have declined in our primary zip codes.  This data was not tracked by what type of drug (prescribed or street) that led to the overdose,” Kelly McCall, public relations manager for PinnacleHealth said in an email.

“While the medical group initiative would not be the sole reason for this decline, as PinnacleHealth is part of several community wide initiatives to curb drug abuse, it does demonstrate that the reduction initiatives haven’t caused an increase in misuse of other drugs and has been part of multiple system-wide efforts to address drug misuse.” 

With so many doctors cutting back on opioid prescribing, overdose deaths in Pennsylvania should be falling, right?

Wrong.

According to a lengthy and detailed report by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, drug-related overdose deaths increased by over 23 percent in Pennsylvania last year.

Heroin was involved in over half of those deaths (55%), followed by fentanyl (27%), cocaine (24%) and the sedative Xanax (21%).

Prescription pain medications such as oxycodone (19%) and hydrocodone (6%) play a relatively minor role in Pennsylvania’s overdose epidemic.

Sadly, Pennsylvania’s heroin and fentanyl crisis has only worsened in 2016. On a single day in Philadelphia last month, nearly 50 people overdosed on a “bad batch” of heroin that was most likely mixed with illicit fentanyl.

Pennsylvania lawmakers have responded to this crisis by going after pain medication. Governor Tom Wolf signed legislation last month that reduces the number of painkillers than can be prescribed in emergency rooms and to minors, establishes mandatory education in safe prescribing for doctors, and creates more drop-off locations for unused prescription drugs.

All of that is well and good – and may prevent some deaths – but there is no evidence that it will have much of impact on the overall problem. It also serves as a diversion from the real issue, which is fentanyl and heroin.

While it is often argued that many heroin users start out with prescription opioids, the vast majority are not legitimate pain patients. They obtained the pain meds illegally, used them non-medically, and got hooked. Taking opioids away from pain patients has not stopped people from using heroin or fentanyl – and it may actually be making the problem worse by forcing some patients to turn to streets drugs for pain relief.

But the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still sees the two problems as being "intertwined."

"The epidemic of deaths involving opioids continues to worsen," said CDC Director Tom Frieden, MD. "Prescription opioid misuse and use of heroin and illicitly manufactured fentanyl are intertwined and deeply troubling problems. We need to drastically improve both the treatment of pain and the treatment of opioid use disorders."

“Reducing opioid prescribing is not going to save many lives at this point, even though it gives many officials a chance to look like they are doing something,” Stefan Kertesz, MD, a primary care physician and an associate professor at the University of Alabama School of Medicine, recently told PNN. “If we have been reducing prescribing for several years, and the misuse of prescription pain relievers is near all-time lows… and overdoses are either staying very high or skyrocketing, then we need to change our assessment of the problem and refocus our response.”

It’s not just Pennsylvania that has gone down the wrong rabbit hole. In October, the CDC released a report complimenting Blue Cross Blue Shield for its efforts to reduce opioid prescribing in Massachusetts. The CDC said over 21 million fewer opioid doses were dispensed to Blue Cross Blue Shield members in the state from 2012 to 2015.

What happened to overdose deaths during that period? Fueled by fentanyl and heroin, opioid overdoses in Massachusetts more than doubled – which neither the CDC nor Blue Cross Blue Shield were all that eager to discuss.  The CDC told Pain News Network it will "take time" before overdoses start to decline and that “assessing what happened before and after the policy at the mortality level is inappropriate."

CDC Guidelines Causing "Passive Genocide"

The message is clearly going out to doctors around the country that they better cutback their opioid prescribing, even though reducing the supply of pain medication has had little or no impact on addiction and overdose rates. Some critics believe the CDC’s own prescribing guidelines, which discourage opioid prescribing for chronic pain, have actually caused more harm than good.

“The CDC guidelines have become an epidemic. More and more organizations and offices have signed on with them and people are being treated shamefully and unethically,” says Janice Reynolds, a retired nurse, pain sufferer and patient advocate. “These so called guidelines are a major part of the passive genocide of people living with pain. The stress related to them is also increasing the number of diseases and deaths we are seeing. I am sure if someone really looked at it, we would see more deaths from them than the so-called addiction epidemic.”

You would think medical organizations would be rising to defend pain patients from the anti-opioid hysteria, but just the opposite is happening. At a pain care summit this week in Washington DC, hosted by the physician’s group Alliance for Balanced for Pain Management, the focus was clearly on prescribing fewer opioids.

The keynote speaker at the summit was not a pain patient or even a pain doctor, but Ryan Leaf, a failed NFL quarterback who struggled for decades with painkiller addiction, and is now in recovery after serving a prison term for burglarizing homes for oxycodone and Vicodin. Hardly the poster child for responsible opioid use.

The Alliance also released a promotional video promoting the need for “multimodal analgesia,” which is described as a “personalized, multi-prong approach” to pain management that includes nerve blocks, epidurals, injections, physical therapy, acupuncture, massage and biofeedback, among other treatments.

Opioids are only mentioned in passing, with the caveat that “they are hardly the only pain treatment or the best treatment.”

Former Insys Executives Arrested for Bribing Doctors

By Pat Anson, Editor

The former CEO of Insys Therapeutics and five other former company executives have been arrested on federal charges of racketeering and bribing doctors to prescribe a potent fentanyl-based painkiller off-label.

The arrests culminate a lengthy investigation into the Arizona drug maker, which has been accused of sordid sales practices that led to the overdose deaths of hundreds of pain patients.  

The painkiller, called Subsys, has FDA approval for breakthrough cancer pain, but Insys executives allegedly bribed and gave kickbacks to doctors to prescribe the oral spray off-label for patients suffering from conditions such as joint pain and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine.

“Patient safety is paramount and prescriptions for these highly addictive drugs, especially fentanyl, which is among the most potent and addictive opioids, should be prescribed without the influence of corporate money,” U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz said in a statement. 

Former CEO Michael Babich and the other Insys executives are also charged with misleading and defrauding insurance companies that were reluctant to approve payments for Subsys when it was prescribed for non-cancer patients. The company created a special “reimbursement unit” that was dedicated to obtaining prior authorization from insurers, often by falsely claiming they were for patients with medically urgent cancer diagnoses.

“As alleged, top executives of Insys Therapeutics, Inc. paid kickbacks and committed fraud to sell a highly potent and addictive opioid that can lead to abuse and life threatening respiratory depression,” said Harold Shaw, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI’s Boston Field Division.  “In doing so, they contributed to the growing opioid epidemic and placed profit before patient safety."

The Southern Investigative Reporting Foundation released a report last year, headlined “Murder Incorporated,”  that blamed aggressive sales practices at Insys for the overdose deaths of hundreds of pain patients.  CNBC also accused the company of “putting profits before patients as it makes millions off your pain.”

In June, federal agents arrested two Insys sales representatives for bribing doctors to prescribe Subsys. Some physicians were wined and dined at upscale restaurants in New York City, while others were taken to private tables at a strip club and given free drinks. According to the indictment, the salesmen were instructed to "expect and demand" that doctors hired by Insys to speak at promotional events prescribe "large quantities" of Subsys. The doctors obliged, prescribing over $5 million worth of Subsys in 2014, much of it billed to private insurers or Medicare.

Doctors are allowed to prescribe drugs for conditions not approved by the FDA, a practice known as off-label prescribing, but drug makers are not permitted to market or promote medications for off-label use.

According to Open Payments, a government website that tracks industry payments to doctors, Insys paid over $6 million to nearly 7,800 doctors last year for food, beverages, travel, lodging and speaker fees. The payments were 30 times more than what the company reported spending on research.

Subsys is a lucrative product for Insys and its biggest moneymaker. According to the Healthcare Bluebook, 30 spray bottles of Subsys currently cost about $5,600.

Abuse Deterrent Pain Medications Deserve Support

Barby Ingle, Columnist

It's no secret that the abuse of pain medication and illegal opioids has led to a growing public health problem across the country. The numbers are alarming and they are growing.

Also alarming is the number of people who suffer with chronic pain. According to the Institute of Medicine, one in three Americans – about 100 million people – have been affected with a condition that causes pain.

Since 2002, I have been battling Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSD), a progressive neuro-autoimmune condition that affects multiple systems in the body. The worst symptom for me is the constant burning fire pain. It feels like someone put lighter fluid in me, lit it, and I can’t put the fire out. I know firsthand how difficult the journey for pain relief can be, particularly the sidelong glances and disbelief from medical professionals.

The challenges are complex and multi-layered, and I always applaud solutions that help to balance pain management with the cost that prescription drug abuse has on society. Promising technological advancements in recent years are proving to be an important part of the battle.

Among these are so-called "abuse deterrent formulas" (ADFs) of commonly prescribed opioid pain medications that are being developed to prevent some of the deadliest forms of opioid abuse. The formulas generally make it harder to crush or liquefy pills for snorting or injecting.

These tamper deterring formulas of pain medications provide patients with the same pain relief as conventional opioids, but incorporate breakthrough technology designed to protect against tampering and abuse.

Since Purdue Pharma introduced a reformulated abuse deterrent version of OxyContin (oxycodone ER) in 2010, the “nonmedical” or recreational use of OxyContin has fallen dramatically.  

source: radars system

source: radars system

Several states are considering legislation in 2017 to improve patient access to these new abuse deterrent formulas of painkillers. As bills are introduced and updated, the International Pain Foundation and other pain organizations track them on our websites, put out action alerts and ask for the pain patient community to get involved by sharing their stories.

ADFs have received widespread support as part of a comprehensive effort to combat prescription drug abuse and promote appropriate pain management, including from the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America, members of Congress, and the National Association of Attorneys General — including California Attorney General Kamala Harris, who was recently elected to the U.S. Senate.

Abuse of pain medications has led to a growing public health problem nationwide. Each year approximately 4.5 million Americans use prescription pain medications for non-medical purposes, contributing to more than 14,000 overdose deaths annually.

To date, the Food and Drug Administration has approved abuse-deterrent labeling for seven drugs (OxyContin, Targiniq, Embeda, Hysingla, Morphabond, Xtampaza, and Troxyca), with two other abuse-deterrent opioids under review.

This technology is only part of the solution, but it is a solution nonetheless. Patients that have struggled with addiction or substance abuse in the past, those who live with others who are current or recovering addicts, and those who live with teens or young adults who may seek opioids for recreational use can all benefit from ADFs.

For the sake of those with legitimate, life-altering pain and for the safety of those prone to abuse these medications, I urge our lawmakers to stand up for policies that preserve and improve patient access to ADF technology.

Barby Ingle suffers from Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSD) and endometriosis. Barby is a chronic pain educator, patient advocate, and president of the International Pain Foundation. She is also a motivational speaker and best-selling author on pain topics.

More information about Barby can be found at her website.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Don’t Let Them Stop the Stem Cell Movement

By A. Rahman Ford, PhD, Guest Columnist

Somewhat lost in Donald Trump’s presidential victory was the resounding statement made by voters that medical marijuana is here to stay.  Those people-driven victories were monumental for millions suffering from painful and debilitating illnesses -- people who could achieve a life-saving benefit from marijuana or its derivatives. 

It’s only a matter of time before the DEA changes its ridiculous classification of marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance. 

I believe that one of the next challenges in the wellness movement is the FDA’s control over your own stem cells, or as I call them, personal stem cells.  Quite frankly, the DEA’s position on marijuana is about as misplaced as the FDA’s position on you using the cells God gave you to heal yourself. 

Some scientists have been pushing quite a bit of manufactured controversy around the issue.  Those same scientists tried the same thing with marijuana.  But now the people know the truth.

Personal stem cells are simple to understand.  I’m not talking about embryos, umbilical cords or artificial cells grown by some scientist in a lab.  When I talk about personal stem cells, I’m talking about master cells cultivated from your own bone marrow or fat. 

Yes, you have stem cells in your own body that can heal you.  

In marijuana terms, it’s like you’re your own stem cell “grow house.”  Your own cells can be used to heal any number of physical ailments, including orthopedic issues.  Orthopedists have been using the procedure for years, and there is also evidence that stem cells can be used to heal autoimmune diseases. 

Like marijuana, we really have no idea how many ailments can be improved or even cured with personal stem cells.

If you’re wondering whether personal stem cells can actually heal, look no further than professional sports.  Recently, Bartolo Colon, currently the oldest major league baseball player at 43 years of age, signed a $12.5 million pitching contract with the Atlanta Braves.  How in the world is he able to be so productive at an age where most players are long retired?  You guessed it – his own stem cells.

What about NFL Hall of Famer and two-time Super Bowl winner Peyton Manning, who literally broke his neck playing the game he loved?  Yes, his own stem cells.  International athletes like tennis champion Rafael Nadal have benefitted as well.  In fact, hundreds of professional athletes have healed from serious injuries by using their own stem cells. 

Personal stem cells can work.

Unfortunately, many athletes have to go overseas to use their own God-given healing potential, because the FDA doesn’t allow certain techniques to expand your really strong (mesenchymal) stem cells.  But these wealthy, well-connected athletes who earn their living by being fit -- often enduring severe injuries and pain -- know the truth.  Your own stem cells can heal you.

Just think how many wounded combat veterans could benefit from their own cells!  A 2014 University of Michigan study found that 60 percent of U.S. Army soldiers who were unable to return to a military career after an Iraq deployment couldn’t do so because of a muscle, bone or joint injury. The strongest predictors of inability to serve were fractures and chronic knee, shoulder, spine and back pain. 

But it’s not just musculoskeletal conditions.  Our troops also have crippling brain injuries from IED and other bomb blasts.  According to the Pittsburgh Tribune Review, tens of thousands of combat veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with undiagnosed brain injuries often were ‘thrown into a canyon’ – falling deeper into despair and sometimes flirting with suicide or addiction.”

It gets worse.  To cope with the pain and depression of injury, many wounded warriors turn to addictive pharmaceutical painkillers or illegal street drugs.  A 2011 American Public Health Association report found that the overdose rate for veterans on opioid painkillers was twice the national average, and that they are more likely to become addicted to heroin. 

Opioid abuse is such an epidemic that, in a recent letter to physicians, the Surgeon General called it a crisis and launched the “Turn the Tide” campaign to raise awareness about the issue. 

Fortunately, many wounded warriors have already begun turning the tide by replacing their toxic pills with medical marijuana.  Now, we owe it to our troops to help them turn the tide even further, by giving them another option – personal stem cells.

We celebrate our troops with parades and salutes on Veteran’s Day, Memorial Day and during just about every major sporting event, and justifiably so.  But maybe the best way to celebrate them is to allow them to heal themselves with their own cells so that they can once again be the parents, siblings and children we love.  Our government has a moral and ethical obligation to do so, and we the people have an ethical and moral obligation to make them do it.

Stem Cell Therapy Not FDA Approved

I want to be clear: clinical use of adult, embryonic and umbilical cord stem cells are not FDA approved, and any determination as to their safety or efficacy requires further research (although, in the interest of full disclosure, I have had umbilical cord stem cells in China and the therapy helped me greatly with no negative effects). These stem cells are properly under the domain of the FDA because they are biological agents that are taken from one person and injected into another person and intended to treat a disease. 

What I’m talking about are cells that go from YOU into YOU.  Personal stem cells are as natural as marijuana, and the federal government should acknowledge that your use of your own cells should be a transaction between you and a licensed physician, and regulated at the state level.

States like Colorado and Washington have already proven how safe and healing – not to mention lucrative – marijuana can be, despite what all of the “experts” were saying.  Your own stem cells are no different.

Right now, personal stem cells are technically legal, but the future regulatory landscape is so uncertain that few physicians offer it and few Americans can afford it.  Rather than expanding access to personal stem cells, the FDA has recently tried to restrict their use.

The proposed action by the FDA is wrong.  Unfortunately, it seems like the agency is refusing to hear the cries of persons with disabilities (like myself) and wounded warriors who come home crippled after serving abroad -- so that the children of federal agency bureaucrats can be safe here at home.

I believe marijuana legalization gives personal stem cell advocates hope.  The legalization movement succeeded despite federal intransigence because of the success of direct democracy. People voted at the state level in referendums, without elected officials operating as self-interested intermediaries. 

Given the important nature of this issue, and the apparent ineffectiveness of federal government lobbying and litigation alone, the personal stem cell movement may need to add a referendum component as well.  It may be difficult, but it can be done. 

Educate yourself, and then educate others.  Human beings are not drugs.  We need to keep it that way.

A. Rahman Ford, PhD, is a lawyer and research professional. He is a graduate of Rutgers University and the Howard University School of Law, where he served as Editor in Chief of the Howard Law Journal. He earned his PhD at the University of Pennsylvania.

Dr. Ford is not affiliated with any stem cell treatment provider. He suffers from chronic inflammation in his digestive tract and is unable to eat solid food.

Pain News Network invites other readers to share their stories with us.  Send them to:  editor@PainNewsNetwork.org.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Surge in Fake Painkillers as Opioid Prescribing Drops

By Pat Anson, Editor

A decline in the abuse and diversion of prescription pain medication is being offset by a “massive surge” in the use of heroin and counterfeit painkillers, according to a comprehensive new report by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

The DEA’s 2016 National Drug Threat Assessment paints a stark picture of the illicit drug trade in prescription medication, fentanyl, heroin, marijuana, methamphetamine and cocaine.  Interestingly, the 194-page report doesn’t even mention kratom, the herbal supplement the DEA attempted to ban in August before postponing its decision after a public outcry.

"Sadly, this report reconfirms that opioids such as heroin and fentanyl - and diverted prescription pain pills - are killing people in this country at a horrifying rate," said DEA Acting Administrator Chuck Rosenberg. "We face a public health crisis of historic proportions. Countering it requires a comprehensive approach that includes law enforcement, education, and treatment." 

The diversion of prescription opioids has fallen dramatically, according to the DEA report, from 19.5 million dosage units in 2011 to 9.1 million in 2015. Less than one percent of the opioids legally prescribed are being diverted to the black market.

The agency says the prescribing and abuse of opioid medication is also dropping, along with the number of admissions to treatment centers for painkiller addiction.

“With the slightly declining abuse levels of CPDs (controlled prescription drugs), data indicates there is an increase in heroin use, as some CPD abusers have begun using heroin as a cheaper alternative to the high price of illicit CPDs or when they are unable to obtain prescription drugs,” the report states.

The increased use of heroin coincided with federal and state efforts to reduce the prescribing of opioids. So did the appearance of counterfeit pain medication made with illicit fentanyl – a synthetic opioid that is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine.  

“In 2015, there was a marked surge in the availability of illicit fentanyl pressed into counterfeit prescription opioids, such as oxycodone. In many cases, the shape, colorings, and markings were consistent with authentic prescription medications and the presence of fentanyl was only detected after laboratory analysis,” the DEA said. “The rise of fentanyl in counterfeit pill form exacerbates the fentanyl epidemic. Prescription pill abuse has fewer stigmas and can attract new, inexperienced drug users, creating more fentanyl-dependent individuals.”

As Pain News Network has reported, the number of fentanyl related deaths has surged around the country. In Massachusetts – where there has been a marked effort to reduce opioid prescribing -- three out of four opioid overdoses are now being linked to illicit fentanyl.

In Ohio’s Cuyahoga County, the problem is even worse. The medical examiner there estimates 770 people will die from either fentanyl or heroin overdoses by the end of the year, ten times the number of overdose deaths from prescription opioids.

The DEA predicts the problem will only grow worse.

“Fentanyl will remain an extremely dangerous public safety threat while the current production of non-pharmaceutical fentanyl continues,” the agency warns. “In 2015 traffickers expanded the historical fentanyl markets as evidenced by a massive surge in the production of counterfeit tablets containing the drug, and manipulating it to appear as black tar heroin. The fentanyl market will continue to expand in the future as new fentanyl products attract additional users.”

Those who do manage to get their hands on prescription painkillers for recreational use are mostly getting them from friends or relatives. Less than 25% of the painkillers that are used non-medically are obtained directly from doctors.

Over two-thirds of the painkillers that are abused are bought, stolen or obtained for free from friends and relatives.

Despite the shifting nature of the opioid epidemic, government efforts to stop it continue to focus on punishing doctors who overprescribe and reducing patient access to opioids.

“I have several chronic pain conditions that I was managing with a doctor’s care and Norco,” one reader recently emailed Pain News Network. “The DEA closed his office out of the blue. I was left with no doctor, no medical records, and the responsibility of weaning myself off what meds I had left on my own. 

SOURCE OF PAINKILLERS USED NONMEDICALLY

SOURCE: DEA

“My life is in shambles and I live in constant pain with no mercy. How much medical proof of real pain does it take? They just run me around to see different doctors. All the money and time wasted. I can't imagine living the rest of my life like this.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 52 Americans die every day from overdoses of prescription opioids, although the accuracy of its estimates has been questioned. Some deaths caused by heroin and illicit fentanyl are wrongly reported as prescription drug overdoses. Other deaths may have been counted twice.

Back Pain Raises Risk of Mental Health Problems

By Pat Anson, Editor

Back pain is the world’s leading cause of disability, but a new international study has documented the toll it also takes on mental health.

British researchers analyzed data for nearly 200,000 people in 43 countries and found that back pain sufferers were three times more likely to be depressed and over twice as likely to experience psychosis.

“Our data shows that both back pain and chronic back pain are associated with an increased likelihood of depression, psychosis, anxiety, stress and sleep disturbances,” said Dr. Brendon Stubbs of Anglia Ruskin University.

“This suggests that back pain has important mental health implications which may make recovery from back pain more challenging. The exact reasons for this are yet to be established.”

Stubbs and his colleagues say their findings, published in the journal General Hospital Psychiatry,  were broadly similar across all 43 countries. The research team studied data from the World Health Survey from 2002 to 2004.

About 80 percent of adults worldwide experience back pain at some point in their lives. A previous study also found that about one in five low back pain patients suffer from depression.

“Further research is required to find out more about the links between these problems, and to ensure effective treatments can be developed. It is also important that healthcare professionals are made aware of this link to refer patients to other services if necessary,” said Stubbs.

Although the association between back pain and mental health problems was similar around the world, the incidence of back pain itself varied widely – from 13.7% in China’s population to 57% in Nepal and 53% in Bangladesh.

A large 2015 study in the United States linked back pain to a wide variety of other health issues, including obesity, nicotine dependence and alcohol abuse.

People with chronic lower back pain are more likely to use illicit drugs -- including marijuana, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine -- according to a recent study published in the journal Spine.

Antibiotics Overprescribed More Than Opioids

By Pat Anson, Editor

Many pain patients report having trouble getting opioid pain medication prescribed by their physicians. So they may be surprised to hear about a new survey that found many doctors believe the overprescribing of antibiotics is a far bigger problem than opioids.

The random survey of over 1,100 members by the American College of Physicians (ACP) – most of them doctors who specialize in internal medicine -- asked them to identify two treatments frequently used by internists that are unlikely to provide “high value care” to patients.

The number one problem – identified by over 27% of the doctors -- was antibiotic prescribing, mostly for treating upper respiratory infections.

The second biggest problem was aggressive life support treatment for terminally ill patients (8.6%), followed by opioid medication for chronic pain management.

Only 7.3% of the doctors felt opioids do not provide high value care.

Dietary supplements (4.9%); statins (4.8%); proton-pump inhibitors (4.5%); cardiac procedures such as angioplasty, stents and catheters (3.5%); and antidepressants and sleep aids (3.4%) were also identified as treatments that often do not provide value.

"While many current clinical guidelines recommend appropriate care, the results of this survey may reflect intrinsic motivations to err on the side of treatment rather than 'doing nothing,'" said lead author Amir Qaseem, MD, Vice President of Clinical Policy at ACP. "However, as health care shifts to a value driven system, this study shows that doctors are willing to critically assess their own clinical practice."

Interestingly, non-pharmacological pain management -- mostly related to back pain -- was mentioned by 1.8% of the doctors as a treatment that provides little value. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends non-pharmacological treatment, such as physical therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy, as an alternative to opioids.

The study findings are being published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

The ACP maintains a list of "high value care" recommendations to help doctors and patients better understand the benefits, harms, and costs of healthcare. Some expensive tests and treatments have high value, according to the ACP, because they provide high benefit and low harm. Conversely, some inexpensive tests or treatments have low value because they do not provide enough benefit and might even be harmful.

The ACP is the largest medical specialty organization in the United States. ACP members include 148,000 internal medicine physicians (internists), related subspecialists and medical students.

Opioid Pain Meds Rarely Involved in Suicide Attempts

By Pat Anson, Editor

Opioid pain medication is involved in less than 5 percent of the attempted suicides in the United States, according to a large new study of emergency room visits.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine studied a national database of more than one billion emergency department visits from 2006 to 2013, and found that antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs were far more likely to be used in an attempted suicide than opioid medication.

The findings appear to contradict numerous government and media reports suggesting that opioids play a significant role in the nation’s rising suicide rate.  A recent VA study, for example, found that veterans receiving the highest doses of opioid painkillers were more than twice as likely to die by suicide.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicides in the U.S. increased by 31 percent over the past decade and are now the 10th leading cause of death. In 2014, nearly 43,000 Americans committed suicide, three times the number of overdose deaths that were linked to prescription opioids.

The Johns Hopkins researchers were puzzled to find that while suicides had risen, there was no corresponding increase in attempted suicides. Their findings are published in the journal Epidemiology and Psychiatric Sciences.

"What stood out to us the most is that while the rate of fatal suicide has increased, the overall rate of nonfatal suicide attempts has not changed much over the years, nor have the patterns -- age, sex, seasonality, mechanism, etc. -- changed much," said lead author Joseph Canner, interim co-director of the Johns Hopkins Surgery Center for Outcomes Research.

Canner and his colleagues analyzed over 3.5 million emergency department visits involving patients who were admitted for attempted suicide or self-inflicted injury. Poisoning was the most common means of injury, accounting for two-thirds of all suicide attempts. Benzodiazepines, anti-anxiety medication, tranquilizers and antidepressants were the most commonly used drugs.

Codeine, morphine, methadone and other opioid medications were involved in only 4.9% of the suicide attempts.

The study confirmed that suicide attempts peak during the spring, dispelling the popular myth that suicides increase during the holiday season. Attempted suicides actually decreased in November and December.

Over 80 percent of those who were admitted for a suicide attempt suffered from a mental health disorder, a broad category that includes depression, anxiety, substance abuse and alcohol disorders.

There have been anecdotal reports of suicides increasing in the pain community since the release of the CDC’s opioid prescribing guidelines in March, 2016. But the guidelines – and their impact on suicides – did not fall within the study period. Johns Hopkins researchers also did not study the relationship between chronic pain and attempted suicide.

“The study fails to reflect, evaluate or acknowledge suicides after the crackdown on opioid analgesics to relieve chronic and intractable pain,” said Twinkle VanFleet, a chronic pain sufferer, patient advocate and suicide survivor.

“Chronic pain sufferers are at a higher risk in contemplation, ideations, and actual attempts on their lives due to the CDC guidelines being developed without consideration to the suffering… inflicting fear in providers to prescribe and fear in patients to live.”

Earlier this year, VanFleet said she became suicidal due to her own undertreated pain. She sought help from two doctors and also went to an emergency room – and was sent away all three times without treatment.

“I still don't know why I'm still here,” she said.

NBA Coach Tried Marijuana for Back Pain

By Pat Anson, Editor

Steve Kerr may have inadvertently started a national conversation about sports and medical marijuana. They’re certainly talking about it in the NBA.

The 51-year old coach of the Golden State Warriors revealed in an interview Friday that he smoked marijuana to see if it might relieve his chronic back pain. Medical marijuana has been legal in California since 1996.

“I guess maybe I can even get in some trouble for this, but I’ve actually tried it twice during the last year and a half, when I’ve been going through this chronic pain that I’ve been dealing with,” Kerr said on The Warriors Insider Podcast.

STEVE KERR

STEVE KERR

Kerr missed most of the 2015 regular season after two back surgeries that not only failed to relieve his pain, but resulted in a spinal fluid leak that gave him chronic headaches, nausea and neck pain. Kerr took a leave of absence for four months and started trying various pain relievers, including narcotic painkillers and pot.

“A lot of research, a lot of advice from people, and I have no idea if maybe I would have failed a drug test. I don't even know if I'm subject to a drug test or any laws from the NBA, but I tried it and it didn't help it all. But it was worth it because I'm searching for answers on pain. I've tried painkillers and drugs of other kinds as well, and those have been worse. It's tricky," Kerr said.

It’s even trickier if you’re a professional athlete.

If an NBA player is caught using marijuana – either recreationally or medically – the league requires the player to enroll in and complete a substance abuse treatment program.

A second infraction results in a $25,000 fine. The penalties escalate after that, with a third offense resulting in a 5-game suspension, followed by a 10-game suspension for a 4th infraction.  

The NFL and Major League Baseball have similar marijuana policies, with baseball players facing the ultimate penalty after a 4th infraction: Banning from the league.

Even though Kerr is a coach now – he had a lengthy career as a player – it took some courage for him to speak so openly about marijuana.

“I’m not a pot person. It doesn’t agree with me. I’ve tried it a few times, and it did not agree with me at all. So I’m not the expert on this stuff,” Kerr said. “But I do know this: If you’re an NFL player, in particular, and you’ve got a lot of pain, I don’t think there is any question that pot is better for your body than Vicodin. And yet athletes everywhere are prescribed Vicodin like its Vitamin C, like it’s no big deal.

“I would hope, especially for these NFL guys, who are basically involved in a car wreck every Sunday – and maybe four days later, the following Thursday, which is another insane thing the NFL does – I would hope that league will come to its senses and institute a different sort of program where they can help these guys get healthier rather than getting hooked on these painkillers.”

Some of Kerr’s player welcomed his comments about a controversial issue.

''Steve's open-minded, and obviously with the way the world's going, if there's anything you can do that's medicinal, people are all for it, especially when there's stuff like Crohn's disease out there, glaucoma, a bunch of stuff, cancer,” said Klay Thompson. “But not recreationally, that should not be of its use ever. There's obviously a medicinal side to it that people are finding out, especially people with really high pain.''

“I think it makes a lot of sense what he said,” said Draymond Green, adding that he has never tried marijuana and “doesn’t really know how it feels.”

“From what I hear from football guys, I think a lot of them do it because of all the pain they go through,” Green said. “It makes a lot sense. It comes from the earth. Any vegetable that comes from the earth, they encourage you to eat it. So I guess it does make a little sense, as opposed to giving someone a manufactured pill. The way some of these pills take the pain away, it can’t be all good for you.”

Although the NFL has a reputation for regular drug testing and watching for signs of drug abuse, some former players say about half the league is currently using marijuana for pain relief.  Many grew tired of using painkillers, which one player calls “a scourge in the locker room.”

Steve Kerr says professional sports needs to re-evaluate its relationship with painkillers and marijuana.

“Having gone through my own bout with chronic pain, I know enough about this stuff – Vicodin is not good for you. It’s not,” said Kerr. “It’s way worse for you than pot, especially if you’re looking for a painkiller and you’re talking about medicinal marijuana, the different strains what they’re able to do with it as a pain reliever. And I think it’s only a matter of time before the NBA and NFL and Major League Baseball realize that.”

I Miss the Person I Used to Be

By Deanna Singleton, Guest Columnist

I'm not the same person I was 8 years ago. It's not because I went through a tragic life experience or that I finally figured out the point of life.

It was that one day, all of a sudden, I opened my eyes in the morning and both my legs were in pain. And over the course of the last 8 years it keeps getting worse. I have advanced spinal stenosis, three bulging discs and degenerative disc disease.

It’s now to the point that at the age of 36, it takes everything I have to get in the shower or to just make a dinner for my kids and hubby. And if I actually do take a shower or do dishes, I'm usually in tears from the pain. I can't move the rest of the day from that small activity. Some days, just the water hitting or running over my skin is enough to make the average person want to die.

I want my life back. I didn't ask for this daily pain.

The first thing I think about when I open my eyes in the morning is where are my medications. I have to take pain medication just to walk through my house or to play with my children.

DEANNA SINGLETON

DEANNA SINGLETON

I used to have a very clean home. Now, not so much. Now it’s normal to walk into my home and see a mountain of clothes filling one whole couch. I loved to clean my house and make it a beautiful home for my family. I used to be out in my garden or flower beds, because that's my happy place. But I can no longer go there.

I used to be able to take my three girls on a walk to the park. Or walk the mall. Now I'm just lucky to be able to walk the grocery store, using the cart as a walker just long enough to get stuff for dinner.

Last but not least, I used to be a great wife. Smiling, happy and at the door to greet my husband after working a long hard day, with makeup and hair done. To make sure he remembers why he comes home every day. 

It's hard to feel pretty when you hurt so bad. Now I'm probably on the couch or in bed with my pajamas still on. With no makeup and hair in a messy bun. No more greetings at the door. And a smile no where to be found.

I used to be a great partner who was loving and affectionate. Who made sure my husband was happy in every way. Now it hurts so bad that we both just feel terrible afterwards.  Me because of the pain level, and him because he feels bad and that it's his fault now.

I used to work at two jobs, until I lost my pain meds due to my doctor not being comfortable any longer prescribing opioids because of the CDC guidelines and our local DEA. I was told by the doctor that he could no longer prescribe my medication.  And just like that, I went from 190 mg of oxycodone a day down to zero. No tapering.  My body then went into massive withdrawal.  I thought I was going to die. And since then I can no longer work.

In the state of Oregon we find no relief or sympathetic doctors who are willing to prescribe these life saving opiates that have been proven to give me my life back. And it's all because doctors are too scared of the CDC and the DEA to treat us patients, who rely on these meds to have any function or quality of life.

I have never wanted someone to cut into my body so bad. But no surgeon will do my surgery till I turn 40. My primary care provider will barely give me tramadol.  I've been to every specialist possible. And gone through countless medications, physical therapies and injections.

I'm just asking our medical doctors to do the job they once probably loved and not be so afraid to treat their patients as they know best. And let me be the mom and wife I used to be, and know I can be once again.

I just want my life back. For my kids, my marriage and for a somewhat active life.  I will start my life at 40.  I will probably be the happiest woman ever to return 40.

Deanna Singleton lives in Oregon with her family.  She is a proud supporter of #PatientsNotAddicts on Facebook and on Twitter.

Pain News Network invites other readers to share their stories with us.  Send them to:  editor@PainNewsNetwork.org.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Over 22,000 Comments on DEA’s Kratom Ban

By Pat Anson, Editor

Over 22,000 public comments – a record number on any issue -- have been posted on a government website taking comments on a threatened federal ban on the herbal supplement kratom. The final number is likely to be even higher once all the comments are recorded.

The vast majority of commenters oppose plans by the Drug Enforcement Administration for the emergency scheduling of two ingredients in kratom as Schedule I controlled substances, a move that would make the sale and possession of the herb a felony.

Thursday, December 1 was the last day that public comments were accepted at Regulations.gov on the kratom ban. The number of kratom comments is over five times the number who commented on the controversial opioid prescribing guidelines released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this year.

“I think the quality of the comments and the quantity of the comments show that kratom really does have potential and that the three to five million people that are consuming kratom would suffer greatly if it becomes a Schedule I controlled substance,” Susan Ash, founder of the American Kratom Association, told Pain News Network.

Ash started using kratom several years ago to help fight opioid addiction. Many others use it to treat their chronic pain, anxiety and depression.

“If Kratom is banned by the DEA my quality of life will decrease tremendously,” wrote a 62-year old veteran who started using kratom four years ago as an alternative to anti-anxiety medication. “My life was out of control with benzodiazepines. With kratom, I can live a somewhat anxiety-free life and not have all the negative side effects that come with benzodiazepines.”

“The VA prescribes lots of pain medication that’s very addictive. I have since gone off the medication and switched to kratom,” wrote Brandon Lang, another military veteran.  “The effect as far as pain relief is comparable, but the addictive nature and the ‘high’ is nearly nonexistent. I feel much better knowing pain relief is available and affordable. I am now free and clear of narcotics.”

“Kratom is nowhere near as dangerous as alcohol, tobacco, acetaminophen, aspirin, and countless other things which are widely available. It makes absolutely no sense to ban kratom,” said John Miller.

“I am a former addict and know others who suffer from addiction including alcoholism,” wrote Chris Simmons. “In my experience kratom significantly reduces cravings while allowing people to go about their day as normally as possible. Please keep this legal.”

One of the comments opposing the ban came from a retired deputy chief of the Los Angeles Police Department.

“Kratom has been used safely by millions of people in the U.S., just like marijuana was used safely prior to its prohibition. And, just like marijuana, kratom has many medicinal benefits that scheduling would deny to those who benefit from its use. Its prohibition would only drive thousands more to opiate use,” wrote Stephen Downing, who has called for the legalization of many illicit drugs.

“There is no evidence to support prohibition of this plant. Putting it on the Controlled Substances Schedule will serve no useful purpose other than the continued survival of a massive and harmful out-of-control government bureaucracy.”

Only a small minority of commenters support a ban on kratom.

“Adding an untested and unregulated substance such as kratom to our food supply without the application of longstanding federal rules and guidelines would not only be illegal, it could likely be dangerous, leading to serious unintended consequences as our nation struggles with the crisis of opioid addiction,” wrote Daniel Fabricant, PhD, a former FDA official who is now CEO and Executive Director of the Natural Products Association (NPA), a trade association that represents the food and dietary supplement industry.

“NPA strongly urges DEA and FDA to take appropriate legal action to ensure that American consumers are protected from an unknown and unregulated botanical ingredient whose use could have widespread and unintended negative consequences for public health and safety.”

Fabricant’s comments to the DEA rely primarily on anecdotal reports that kratom might be harmful or have a narcotic effect.  Although kratom leaves have been used for centuries as a natural remedy in southeast Asia, it is relatively new in the United States, and there have been few clinical studies on its safety and efficacy.

In a new analysis of existing studies funded by the American Kratom Association, Jack Henningfield, PhD, said kratom was no more dangerous than many other herbal supplements, such as St. John’s Wort, lavender, kava and hops. 

"For both abuse potential and dependence liability, kratom's profile is comparable to or lower than that of unscheduled substances such as caffeine, nicotine-containing smoking cessation products, dextromethorphan, and many antihistamines, antidepressants, and other substances sold directly to consumers,” said Henningfield, who is a former chief of research at the National Institute on Drug Abuse and is currently an adjunct professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. 

What happens now with the threatened ban is not clear. The DEA has asked for a new analysis of kratom from the Food and Drug Administration, which initially recommended that the herb be made a controlled substance. The new analysis has yet to be released publicly.

It appears likely that a final decision on kratom will be left to the incoming Trump administration, and there are conflicting signs where that may lead. Trump’s nominee as Attorney General, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, has been a longtime critic of marijuana legalization. If confirmed by the Senate, Sessions will oversee the DEA.

Trump’s nominee as Secretary of Health and Humans Services, Georgia Rep. Tom Price, will oversee both the CDC and FDA if he is confirmed. Price is a noted Tea Party member and longtime critic of Obamacare, who wants a more free market approach to healthcare that allows patients to make their own decisions. 

Susan Ash is hopeful that these dueling interests will decide that kratom is best left alone as a dietary supplement. 

“I’m nearly 100% confident that they are not going to emergency schedule this again,” she told PNN. “I truly believe that science is going to be on our side. How long it is going to take for that science is my concern.”

Stem Cell Therapy: Hope or Hype for Pain Patients?

By Pat Anson, Editor

The testimonials sound so encouraging. Chronic pain from arthritis, neuropathy and degenerative disc disease begins to fade after a single injection of stem cells.

“The next day after a needle went in there, the next morning they felt better. Immediately,” says 93-year old Curtis Larson, who suffered from neuropathic pain in his feet and ankles for nearly a decade.  

"Pain’s all gone. Completely gone,” Larson says in a promotional video hosted on the website of Nervana Stem Cell Centers of Sacramento, California.     

“You don’t have to accept chronic joint pain as a fact of life. There’s still hope even if medications and other treatments haven’t worked for you. Our practitioners can explain to you how stem cell treatments work and whether you can benefit,” the Nervana website states. “Relief may be on its way!”

We’ve written before about experimental stem cell therapy and how injections of cells harvested from a patient’s bone marrow or blood are being used to treat chronic conditions such as low back pain.

Professional athletes such as Kobe Bryant and Peyton Manning have used one stem cell treatment – known as platelet rich plasma therapy -- to recover from nagging injuries and revitalize their careers.

But has stem cell therapy moved beyond the experimental stage? Is it ready for widespread use?

“Published data derived primarily from small, uncontrolled trials plus a few well-controlled, randomized trials have not reliably demonstrated the effectiveness of stem-cell treatments,” wrote FDA commissioner Robert Califf, MD, in a commentary recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine – an article clearly aimed at throwing cold water on some of the hype surrounding stem cell treatment.

Califf and two co-authors said there is simply not enough evidence to support some of the newer stem cell therapies – such as cells harvested from a patient’s body fat (adipose tissue).

“The safety and efficacy of the use of stem cells derived from peripheral blood or bone marrow for hematopoietic reconstitution are well established. Increasingly, however, hematopoietic stem cells and stem cells derived from sources such as adipose tissue are being used to treat multiple orthopedic, neurologic, and other diseases. Often, these cells are being used in practice on the basis of minimal clinical evidence of safety or efficacy, sometimes with the claim that they constitute revolutionary treatments for various conditions,” they wrote.

But the lack of evidence and FDA approval haven’t stopped stem cell clinics from popping up all over the country. Over 570 such clinics now operate nationwide, with over a hundred of them in California alone, according to the Sacramento Bee. Some clinics – such as Nervana Stem Cells – are hosting free seminars for chronic pain patients, publicizing them with advertisements that read, “We want you to start living your life pain free!”

A Sacramento Bee reporter attended one seminar and listened to a former chiropractor who works for Nervana tell the audience that they can lower their pain scores from 8’s and 9’s to “mostly 0’s and 1’s” after 16 weeks of injections. He said the clinic has a 90 percent success rate.

Nervana does not use stems cells derived from bone marrow, blood or body fat, but uses a solution of embryonic stem cells from the “after-birth of healthy babies,” the Bee reported. Costs ranged from $5,000 for a single joint injection to $6,000 for a spinal injection. Stem cell therapy is not usually covered by insurance.

“It’s quite clear that these people are offering treatments that haven’t been tested in clinical trials. It’s a little concerning,” Kevin McCormack, a spokesman for the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine told the Bee.  

“There’s a gray zone where these clinics are operating,” he said. “The FDA needs to address the issue of these clinics and address this slow, onerous approval process for stem cell therapy.”

The FDA’s Califf says the agency is not trying to stifle research into a promising new field of medicine -- it’s just waiting for proof that the treatments work and don’t cause harmful side effects. He cited cases in which stem cell patients developed tumors or went blind after injections.

“Such adverse effects are probably more common than is appreciated, because there is no reporting requirement when these therapies are administered outside clinical investigations,” Califf wrote. “The occurrence of adverse events highlights the need to conduct controlled clinical studies to determine whether these and allogeneic cellular therapies are safe and effective for their intended uses. Without such studies, we will not be able ascertain whether the clinical benefits of such therapies outweigh any potential harms.”