New Saliva Drug Test for Pain Patients

By Pat Anson, Editor

A Denver-based drug testing company has developed a new saliva test to help doctors determine if their pain patients are taking opioid medications appropriately.

Cordant Health Solutions says its Comprehensive Oral fluid Rx Evaluation (CORE) test is more accurate than the point-of-care (POC) urine tests that are widely used by doctors to test patients for prescribed medications, as well as illegal drugs.

Urine tests only tell a doctor if a drug is present, not if the patient is taking the right amount of medication. As PNN has reported, studies have also shown the urine tests often give false results for drugs like marijuana, oxycodone and methadone.

“Urine screening methods are subject to false positive and false negatives. If somebody for instance is taking a cold medication, they could very easily test positive for amphetamines,” said Richard Stripp, PhD, Chief Scientific Officer for Cordant. “The CORE test is specific for the drug that’s in the blood at the time the oral fluid (saliva) is collected.

“And not only will it tell you whether the drug is there or not, it will tell you whether it’s there at a level that consistent with what was prescribed.”

If a prescribed drug is found in saliva, the CORE test will tell whether it’s within an expected range, or at a level that’s above or below it – an indication the patient is taking too much or too little medication. Stripp admits the test is not foolproof. About 25 percent of the time, he says drug levels detected in saliva don’t match what is found in the patient’s blood.

“There are always things that you have to consider when you are interpreting results. I often say this does not replace the clinical judgement of the physician. This is a tool to help them make better decisions,” Stripp told PNN.

“If a doctor says (a patient is) out of range, I’m kicking them out of my practice, we would never, ever suggest that should be the case. Basically, it’s time to have a conversation with a patient and maybe it requires further monitoring.”

Unlike urine samples, which are usually collected privately in a bathroom and can be swapped or altered with “clean” urine from someone else, a saliva sample for the CORE test can be collected directly from a patient’s mouth with a simple swab.  

One disadvantage of the CORE test is that the results are not immediately available, as they are with POC tests that utilize color-coded “dipsticks” that quickly change color when a drug is detected.

The saliva samples need to be shipped to a Cordant laboratory for testing and the results generally won’t be available for 48 to 72 hours. Currently the CORE test can be used to detect levels of oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine, oxymorphone, hydromorphone, tramadol and fentanyl.

Patients Penalized After Failed Test

Laboratory testing is far more accurate than POC tests, but some doctors don’t bother ordering confirmatory lab tests if something suspicious is found in a patient’s urine. We hear regularly from readers who say their doctor became suspicious or even “fired” them after a POC test turned up something unexpected.

“Last week they had me come in to take a urine sample. A week later they called and said I failed because they found no drugs in my sample,” said one man who has been taking hydrocodone for nearly 30 years.

“The doctor now tells me they can't approve any more refills. I thought they were joking. They also told me that no one in the area could either. It's crazy and I don't know what to do. I tried not taking pain meds and nearly went insane from the sleepless nights.”

A woman who takes Percocet for her fibromyalgia pain wrote to us saying two urine tests failed to detect any opiates in her system.

“My physician of 14 years immediately interrogated me about compliance and asked if I was giving it away,” she said. “Based on the negative findings, he said he could not prescribe me any further narcotic pain relief.

“I have no idea how I will manage my pain now. This has turned into an insane circus. I feel betrayed by my physician, and the doctor-patient relationship has had its trust destroyed.”

Stripp says he cautions doctors not to jump to conclusions after a failed test.

“If you don’t do the laboratory confirmation test, from a legal perspective you can’t say with reasonable certainty that the test actually contains or doesn’t contain the material it was tested for,” he said.

“You never want to accuse a patient of aberrant behavior if you have an inconsistent result, because there are other reasons why you could have inconsistent results. It could be there are differences in metabolism or they could have a health issue that may be causing the problem. Or there may be a drug interaction.”

Another reader who is on probation was given a urine test that showed he was positive for fentanyl.

"After a nightmare trying to keep myself out of jail, they allowed me to go to a hospital for another urine and blood tests. Both came back 100% negative! The second tests were taken an hour after the first," he wrote. "The judge accepted the hospitals tests and I am free, but this should not be happening."

The CDC’s opioid prescribing guidelines encourage doctors to conduct urine tests on patients before starting opioid therapy and at least once a year afterward. But they explicitly warn against dropping a patient after a failed test.

 "Clinicians should not dismiss patients from care based on a urine drug test result because this could constitute patient abandonment and could have adverse consequences for patient safety, potentially including the patient obtaining opioids from alternative sources," the guidelines state.

How common is patient abandonment? In a recent survey by Pain News Network and the International Pain Foundation, 20 percent of doctors and healthcare providers said they had discharged a patient who failed a drug test in the past year.  And about 4 percent of the patients surveyed said they had been fired by a doctor over a failed test.

How Doctors Can Dash Your Hopes

By Crystal Lindell, Columnist

I saw a new specialist this month. A neurosurgeon.

It didn’t go great. In fact, it sucked. He ordered some MRIs, which all came back fine, just like they always do. And then he created a treatment plan that literally included losing weight and not wearing bras.

Thanks.

He had come highly recommended by a good friend and I was hoping he would be willing to try something different for me. I wasn’t sure exactly what, but I had the vague idea that he might be able to cut my nerve. But, he said that was way too risky and wouldn’t even consider it.

Then he suggested a bunch of horrible medications that I’ve l already tried, like Lyrica and gabapentin and pain patches.

And came up with his brilliant idea of not wearing bras.

My pain had become much more manageable, but over the last three or four months it has spiked. A lot. Leaving me with too many days where I can’t get out of bed, no matter how many pain pills I take.

I had long ago given up on seeking out new specialists. Two unsuccessful trips to the Mayo Clinic, multiple university hospitals and thousands of dollars in medical bills tend to dampen even the most enthusiastic patient’s drive to find new treatments.

But the pain was coming back, and after recently increasing my opioid dose, I was reluctant to try to go up any more. And so, I figured I would just try one more guy. One more doctor. And just, see.

I forgot how completely devastating it is when you get your hopes up, only to have them crushed.

In the back of my mind, I confess I had let myself get a little hopeful. This doctor is known for being open to experimental treatments, and I thought he might be willing to try some new approaches. And I think, deep down, I was holding on to this as my last out. As the one thing out there that might still be able to help me. The one thing that I hadn’t tried yet.

But as I sat in his office, going through four years of medical records with him, explaining everything I had been through and everything I had tried, only to have him blame my bra, I remembered why I had given up on trying new doctors.

And as I sat in the MRI machine for a full hour, getting every angle and holding my breath for various shots, I remembered how awful all the medical tests can be, and how heartbreaking it is when your very real pain doesn’t show up on any scans. How hard it is to remind yourself that you’re not crazy. That you are actually sick. And it doesn’t matter what the MRI results show, your pain is real.

When I left my second appointment with him, I got in my car and cried. I cried because I felt like I was completely out of options. I cried because he honestly thought the reason I was in debilitating pain was my weight. I cried because I didn’t know what the next step was. I cried because I didn’t feel like he believed me. And I cried because I was angry at myself for letting my heart get its hopes up.

There’s a reason pain patients get mad at every well-meaning friend who has a cousin whose dog was saved with a new medication that they think you should try.

There’s a reason we all get visibly angry when someone tells us we should see the doctor that their mom’s brother’s baby saw.

Because if we don’t get mad, if we give in, we end up getting our hopes up. We start to think getting better might be a real possibility. But most of the time, our hopes are dashed, exactly as we feared they would be.

And the only thing worse than chronic pain, is having chronic pain and being hopeless.

Crystal Lindell is a journalist who lives in Illinois. She loves Taco Bell, watching "Burn Notice" episodes on Netflix and Snicker's Bites. She has had intercostal neuralgia since February 2013.

Crystal writes about it on her blog, “The Only Certainty is Bad Grammar.”

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.

Doctors Oppose 'Perverse' Limit on Opioid Painkillers

By Pat Anson, Editor

A group of 80 doctors, pharmacists, academics and health researchers have signed a joint letter opposing “perverse” new guidelines being proposed to limit high doses of opioid pain medication.

The National Committee for Quality Assurance (NCQA) is a little known non-profit organization that accredits healthcare organizations and ranks their performance against a set of standards known as the Healthcare Effectiveness Data and Information Set (HEDIS).

In a proposed new HEDIS standard for opioid prescribing, NCQA would set a daily ceiling at a 120 milligram morphine equivalent dose (MME) when opioids are prescribed for 90 consecutive days or longer. Any insurer or provider in violation of that standard would be red flagged, and if too many violations are found they risk losing their accreditation.

The proposed standard “will pose a serious risk to some patients currently receiving opioids,” according to the letter drafted by Stefan Kertesz, MD, a primary care physician and Associate Professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine. 

The letter was signed by a diverse group of healthcare providers, including some who helped develop the CDC’s opioid prescribing guidelines. Those guidelines are voluntary and intended only for primary care physicians, but are being widely adopted and made mandatory throughout the U.S. healthcare system.

Ironically, the NCQA's limit of 120 MMEs is actually higher than the CDC's recommended limit of 90 MMEs.

“We must distinguish between the language of the CDC Guideline itself, and the perverse care decisions that the NCQA ‘Opioid High Dosage’ binary measure will incentivize,” the letter states.

Kertesz and his colleagues say the proposed standard would force many doctors to taper patients off high opioid doses “despite the lack of any evidence to assess its impact on risk to patients, and the reality that the CDC Guideline did not endorse this approach.”

“Put simply, the ‘Opioid High Dosage’ measure will accelerate a reconfiguration of care that has never been tested in prospective trials and that could actually increase risk to individual patients, as illustrated by scholarly and popular reports of acute withdrawal (with death), protracted abstinence syndrome, and suicide associated with incautious unilateral opioid discontinuation or unrelenting pain,” they wrote.

The letter concludes by urging the NCQA to abandon its high opioid standard until evidence is available to assess the potential harm to patients.

In a statement explaining its proposal, NCQA said “there is limited evidence for the long-term beneficial effects of opioid use” and suggested opioids were only appropriate for acute pain and chronic pain conditions “such as sickle cell disease or late stage cancer.”

The NCQA just ended a public comment period on its opioid proposal. Several PNN readers have complained they were unable to post comments on the NCQA website.

Lyrica Fails in Sciatica Pain Study

By Pat Anson, Editor

A small study in Australia has found that pregabalin – a drug more widely known under the brand name Lyrica -- works no better than a placebo at relieving leg pain caused by sciatica.

Researchers enrolled 209 sciatica patients in the study and assigned them to groups that received either pregabalin or placebo for a year. The findings, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, not only showed that pregabalin was no more effective than a placebo, but that it caused unwanted side effects such as dizziness.    

“Treatment with pregabalin did not significantly reduce the intensity of leg pain associated with sciatica and did not significantly improve other outcomes, as compared with placebo, over the course of 8 weeks. The incidence of adverse events was significantly higher in the pregabalin group than in the placebo group,” researchers concluded.

In all, 227 side effects were reported by the 108 patients who received pregabalin.

"Until now there has been no high quality evidence to help patients and doctors know whether pregabalin works for treating sciatica. Our results have shown pregabalin treatment did not relieve pain, but did cause side effects such as dizziness," said lead author Dr. Christine Lin, an associate professor at the George Institute for Global Health and the University of Sydney Medical School.

The placebo effect appeared to play a strong role in the study. Participants started out with an average score of about 6 on a zero to 10 pain scale. After one year, the pain levels dropped to 3.4 for those taking pregabalin and 3.0 for those taking placebo.

“It seems people associate a drop in pain being due to taking a capsule, rather than something which would happen naturally over time,” said Lin. "Unfortunately there are no drugs proven to work for people with sciatica and even epidural injections only provide a small benefit in the short term. What we do know is that most people with sciatica do eventually recover with time. It's also important to avoid bed rest and to stay as active as possible."

Sciatica originates in the lower back and travels down the sciatic nerve to each leg, causing pain, tingling and numbness. 

Pregabalin was originally developed as a treatment for epilepsy, but drug maker Pfizer was very successful in turning Lyrica into a multi-purpose pain drug that generates worldwide sales of $5 billion a year.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved Lyrica to treat chronic nerve pain caused by diabetes, fibromyalgia, epilepsy, spinal cord injury and post-herpetic neuralgia caused by shingles. The drug is also prescribed “off label” to treat a variety of other conditions, including sciatica and spinal stenosis.

According to ClinicalTrials.gov, dozens of studies are underway to test the effectiveness of pregabalin on conditions such as cirrhosis of the liver, anxiety, chronic cough, post-operative pain, pediatric seizures, and neuropathic pain caused by chemotherapy.

Common side effects of Lyrica are dizziness, blurred vision, nausea, headache, weight gain and fatigue.  Lyrica may cause suicidal thoughts in about 1 in 500 patients who use it. Pfizer also warns patients to talk to their doctor before they stop taking Lyrica. Suddenly stopping the medication may result in withdrawal symptoms such as headaches, nausea, diarrhea, trouble sleeping, increased sweating, and anxiety.

Steroid Injections Provide Little Relief for Back Pain

By Pat Anson, Editor

Steroid injections provide only short term relief for patients suffering from chronic low back pain, according to a new study funded by the French Ministry of Health that was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

Researchers evaluated 135 patients with discopathy – degenerative disc disease -- who were being treated at three different clinics in France. Half the patients were assigned to a control group and the rest received a single glucocorticoid (steroid) injection into their lower back.

A little over half of the patients who received the injection reported positive effects on back pain after one month. But the effect was only temporary and decreased over time, with no differences in back pain intensity after 12 months when compared to the control group.

“Given these findings, the researchers question the efficacy of glucocorticoid injections as a treatment for chronic low back pain,” the American College of Physicians said in a news release.

The French study adds to a growing body of evidence questioning the effectiveness and safety of steroid injections into the spinal area.

A 2015 report by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) found little evidence that epidural steroid injections were effective in treating low back pain. Researchers said the injections often provide immediate improvements in pain and function, “but benefits were small and not sustained, and there was no effect on long-term risk of surgery.”

A 2014 study by the AHRQ also found that epidural injections did little to relieve pain in patients with spinal stenosis.  

Epidural injections, which have long been used to relieve pain during childbirth, are increasingly being used as an alternative to opioids in treating back pain. The shots have become a common and sometimes lucrative procedure at many pain management clinics, where costs vary from as little as $445 to $2,000 per injection.

The Food and Drug Administration has never approved the use of steroids to treat back pain, but several million epidural steroid injections are still performed “off label” in the U.S. annually.

The American College of Physicians (ACP) recently released new guidelines saying there was little evidence that steroid injections are effective as a treatment for low back pain.

“Moderate-quality evidence showed no differences in pain between systemic corticosteroids and placebo and no to small effect on function in patients with radicular low back pain,” the ACP said.

Lower back pain is the world's leading cause of disability. Over 80 percent of adults have low back pain at some point in their lives.

Little Evidence That Pain Contracts Work

By Roger Chriss, Columnist

Pain contracts are common. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends their use and many states all but require them. The contracts can be long, detailed and sometimes oddly demanding, as Crystal Lindell described in her recent column, "Signing a Pain Contract in the Age of Opioid Phobia."

In 2001, pain contracts and opioid use agreements were being promoted as “A Tool for Safely Treating Chronic Pain” by the American Academy of Family Physicians.

By 2011, Kaiser Health News was reporting that doctors were increasingly using contracts to protect themselves and to spell out the rules patients had to follow to reduce the risk of abuse and addiction.  

Some patients may end up signing multiple contracts with various providers, sometimes even watching video presentations about the content and intent of the contract.

So it seems reasonable to assume that pain contracts work, that research supports their use and establishes their benefits. Unfortunately, that is not the case.

The American Medical Association’s Journal of Ethics reported in 2013 that a review of opiate treatment agreements found “only weak evidence of a reduction in opiate misuse” in studies that were described as “methodologically poor.” The article also warned that “perhaps the greatest potential harm in the use of narcotics contracts is the inherent message to the patient that he or she can’t be trusted.”

Similarly, in 2010 the Annals of Internal Medicine published a review of a handful of observational studies rated as poor or fair quality, which found that opioid misuse was only modestly reduced in patients who signed contracts. In some of the studies, no benefit could be demonstrated.

In 2011, MD Magazine reported that “there is little evidence that these documents help reduce opioid misuse.” Steven King, MD, agreed with that assessment in the Psychiatric Times, writing that “there does not appear to be any firm evidence that these tools reduce the likelihood that opioids will be used in unintended ways.”

And as far back as 2002, the Clinical Journal of Pain published a study that stated “efficacy is not well established” for opioid contracts.

Thus, pain contracts have been researched for well over a decade with consistent results: they do little to reduce opioid misuse or abuse in any form.

Moreover, there is research and expert opinion suggesting that contracts can be harmful. For instance, in 2011 the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids reported that opioid contracts may damage patient trust and should not be used as a way to “fire” patients who violate the terms of the agreement.

In 2016, STAT reported on the unintended consequences of federal legislation promoting the use of such contracts, in particular how they could stigmatize and endanger patients who are struggling with substance abuse and addiction.

So why are pain contracts becoming more common and more complicated? And why is there a perception that they work?

Perhaps because chronic pain patients are in general compliant about pain medication, rarely share or sell their pills, and tend not to develop problems with abuse or addiction. In other words, pain contracts work because there is nothing for them to do.

The Johns Hopkins Arthritis Center tells us that patients who develop an opioid problem almost always have a prior history of substance abuse, and that stealing or forging prescriptions rarely occurs among patients. Another study found an opioid addiction rate of only about 3% in chronic pain patients.

Much like airport security scanners, pain contracts seem like a form of theater, a solution in search of a problem. But they are not just a benign if pointless exercise in paperwork.

Pain contracts unnecessarily lump together chronic pain patients and people suffering from drug addiction, and thus risk stigmatizing and misunderstanding two distinct groups. Chronic pain patients are not potential addicts or abusers-in-training, and substance abuse is a separate medical condition that requires a distinct approach from pain.

Perhaps there is a way to create pain contracts that actually help patients and clinicians. But until the evidence to support them is found, resources could be better used to improve treatments for chronic pain, as well as substance abuse.

Roger Chriss suffers from Ehlers Danlos syndrome and is a proud member of the Ehlers-Danlos Society. Roger is a technical consultant in Washington state, where he specializes in mathematics and research.

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 represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Anti-Anxiety Meds Raise Risk of Opioid Overdose

By Pat Anson, Editor

Taking opioid painkillers with benzodiazepines – a class of anti-anxiety medication that includes Xanax and Valium – significantly raises the risk of an emergency room visit or hospital admission for an overdose, according to a large new study.

Opioids and benzodiazepines are both central nervous system depressants that can cause sleepiness, respiratory depression, coma and death. Nearly 30% of fatal overdoses in the U.S. linked to opioids also involve benzodiazepines.

Researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine analyzed private insurance claims for over 315,000 people prescribed opioids from 2001 to 2013.

In 2001, they found that 9 percent of opioid users also received a prescription for a benzodiazepine. By 2013, the co-prescribing rate nearly doubled to 17 percent.

Their study, published in The BMJ, found that use of both drugs was associated with a substantially higher risk of an emergency room visit or inpatient admission for opioid overdose.

“We found that opioid users who concurrently used benzodiazepines were at an increased risk of opioid overdose and that eliminating concurrent benzodiazepine/opioid use could reduce the risk of opioid overdose by 15%,” wrote lead author Eric Sun, MD, an assistant professor at Stanford University School of Medicine.

“Providers should exercise caution in prescribing opioids for patients who are already using benzodiazepines (or vice versa), even in a non-chronic setting. Indeed, we note that the association between concurrent benzodiazepine/opioid use and the risk of opioid overdose was broadly similar for both intermittent and chronic opioid users.”

The Food and Drug Administration recently expanded the warning labels on opioids and sedatives because of the risk of overdose. Insurance companies are also actively discouraging doctors from prescribing the two together..

A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranked Xanax (alprazolam) as the fourth deadliest drug in the United States, while Valium (diazepam) was ranked tenth. Xanax was involved in about a quarter of the overdoses involving opioid pain medication.  

5 Steps New Chronic Pain Patients Should Take

By Barby Ingle, Columnist

When I first experienced the symptoms of endometriosis, all I could think of was get to the doctor so this will stop. That’s what I did as a kid. I got sick and my mom took me to the doctor and made me better.

I knew something was wrong inside of me because of the blood and abdominal pain. But with endometriosis, you don’t really know for sure until the doctor looks to see what is going on.

I had never heard of endometriosis at the time of my diagnosis. Nearly 20 years later, it is no longer a rare disease with more than 200,000 new cases in the U.S. every year.  Endometriosis occurs when tissue that normally lines the inside of the uterus grows outside of it.  The disease is treatable, but it does require a medical diagnosis to rule out other possible causes of the symptoms.

I went through lab tests and imaging, but they didn’t show much. I had endometriosis cysts that had ruptured for years before the symptoms became an issue for me chronically. None of the providers ever warned me what they could mean.

When they finally did the laparoscopy, the uterus tissue was found on my ovaries, fallopian tubes, abdomen walls, and intestines. Once they did this procedure, the endometriosis got worse instead of better.

I decided to go to a larger city to get care at a major university hospital. I was the youngest patient there to ever receive a full hysterectomy after rounds of hormones and Lupron shots that didn’t work.             

1. Find the Right Doctor

What I learned from my experience with endometriosis was the importance of finding the right doctor. Each course of treatment is going to be different. Don’t always think the treatment you receive is all there is because that is all your doctor offered you.

You can make the choice to get the care you need. Don’t be afraid to do so. It’s your life. 

2. Consider Multiple Treatment Options

Don’t just go for the pain medicines or invasive treatments first. If a treatment you try does not work for you, stop and ask for something else. If your doctor can’t provide it, move on and find one who can. It is important for you to communicate with your providers, family and caretakers to create a treatment plan.

3. Take Responsibility for Your Treatment

We can’t live in our doctors’ offices between appointments. The person who is most responsible for your care is you.

It is up to you to follow the treatment plan and realize that it may take multiple and concurrent treatments to get everything under control.

4. Get Organized and Ask for Help

You may lose people in your life that don’t understand, are not supporting you or causing negativity. That is okay. It can be lonely, but we can only ask for help. The person we are asking is not obligated to help. Find people who can help willingly.

You will need to get organized, so you know what help to ask for. You may also realize the help you require needs to be split up among different people. If one person is all you can rely on, it may cause them to burnout.

Reach out to resources in your community, such as churches, community centers, high school and college volunteer programs, your insurance company resources, etc. Don’t limit yourself when it comes to getting help, and be thankful and willing to receive any help you do get from others.

I have talked about the importance before of keeping a journal to track symptoms, treatments and for your personal well-being. Once you have some data that helps you recognize your pain triggers, you can set expectations and plan accordingly. Then when pain flares pop up, you will be better able to handle them, have less stress, and better daily living.

5. Be Your Own Advocate

Finally, advocate for yourself. You will come to learn your body better than anyone on earth. You will know what you need. If insurance denies an option, appeal it. If a medication is causing you terrible side effects, report it to MedWatch at the FDA. 

Have the nerve to be heard and lose the fear of speaking up. The more you stand up for yourself and share your story, the better you and the chronic pain community will be. 

Barby Ingle lives with reflex sympathetic dystrophy (RSD), migralepsy and endometriosis. Barby is a chronic pain educator, patient advocate, and president of the International Pain FoundationShe 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. 

New Opioid Relieves Pain Without the ‘High’

By Pat Anson, Editor

Nektar Therapeutics has announced positive results from Phase III study showing that a new opioid medication significantly reduces pain without the high levels of euphoria that can lead to abuse and addiction.

The company also said the Food and Drug Administration has given the medication – known as NKTR-181 – “fast track” designation for the treatment of moderate to severe chronic pain, a status that allows for an expedited review of the drug.

Many pain sufferers say they do not get "high" or experience euphoria from opioid pain medication. But drug makers and government regulators are seeking to develop painkillers with less risk of abuse and addiction.  

"The data from this efficacy study are extremely important because they demonstrate that NKTR-181 produces strong analgesia in patients suffering from chronic pain while NKTR-181 has also demonstrated significantly lower abuse potential than oxycodone in a human abuse potential study," said clinical investigator Martin Hale, MD, medical director of Gold Coast Research.

"While standard opioid analgesics, including abuse-deterrent formulations, have been the most effective way to treat chronic pain, they are associated with serious safety concerns and many opioid-naïve patients fear taking them because of the potential for abuse and addiction.  The data for NKTR-181 suggest that it is a transformational pain medicine that could fundamentally change how we treat patients with chronic pain conditions."

The placebo controlled study involved 610 patients with moderate to severe chronic low back pain who had not taken opioids before. During the open-label phase of the study, pain scores dropped by an average of 65% in patients taking NKTR-181 twice daily.

The company said over half the patients (51.5%) on NKTR-181 reported their general overall status and quality of life "improved" or "very much improved" compared to patients taking a placebo. 

They also reported better overall quality of sleep, with less sleep disturbance and fewer sleep problems. There were no differences in daytime sleepiness on NKTR-181 versus placebo. The drug was generally well-tolerated, although some patients reported nausea, constipation and somnolence.

Nektar is currently conducting another Phase III study to evaluate the safety and tolerability of NKTR-181 in 638 patients with chronic low back pain or chronic non-cancer pain.

The company says NKTR-181 is the first opioid molecule to provide pain relief without high levels of euphoria and sedation. The molecular structure of NKTR-181 is designed to have low permeability across the blood-brain barrier in order to slow its rate of entry into the brain.

Nektar is a research-based biopharmaceutical company that discovers and develops new drugs for which there is a high unmet medical need. It has a pipeline of new investigational drugs to treat cancer, auto-immune disease and chronic pain.

How to Successfully Use Manual Therapy with EDS

By Ellen Lenox Smith, Columnist

There are two types of physical therapy to consider. The traditional type includes ice, hot packs, ultrasound and exercises. With this type, the physical therapist is not touching you.

But for those of us living with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (EDS), the second type of physical therapy, called manual therapy, is much safer. You lie on a table for a hands-on approach, and the physical therapist has specific techniques to reduce the muscles spasms and realign the bones through touching the patient. It’s similar, but not the same as massage or a chiropractic adjustment.

In EDS sufferers, when our muscles go into spasm, we feel a lot of discomfort and pain, and our joints can shift out of position, causing what is called subluxations.

Even simple tasks like sleeping in a bad position or picking up groceries can cause this. Our poor muscles spasm easily because they are overworked from taking on the job of our ligaments and tendons, which are weakened by our collagen disorder.

We need to realign the joints and return them to their correct position, which then reduces the muscle spasms.

When this is done by a manual physical therapist or chiropractor, then exercising will not hurt so much. Treatment of the muscles repositions the joints and calms the muscle spasms down.

But you also need to understand that your muscles will return to those spasms if another step is not taken after manual therapy.

You need to do specific exercises to strengthen the muscles that were causing the problem. If you just put the joint back into position without strengthening the muscles around it, you will leave the joints weak and susceptible to the same forces that could pull them back out again. If you strengthen the muscles, the joints will not shift out of position so easily. The exercises should begin as soon as the manual therapy appointment is over.

Also, when you have any cranial or myofascial release work done, the process literally puts your muscles into a calmer, sleeping mode. Before leaving the office, you need to reactivate and wake those muscles back up or you will find your joints will potentially slip back out again.

I went to manual therapy for years and never understood why I kept slipping right apart. I would walk out feeling so relaxed and calm and then, sometimes in the car ride home, things would start to shift out of position. Now I take a few minutes to wake up and reactivate the muscles and find the body will hold much longer.

This is a simple procedure that your provider should be able to show you how to do. It makes all the difference in the world. I recommend Kevin Muldowney’s book, Living Life to the Fullest with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome for proper guidance on these exercises.

Strengthening the muscles is a must after manual therapy or the spasms will return. If you fail to discipline yourself and do your exercises, you can’t expect your provider to develop and assist you in executing a successful treatment plan.

It reminds me of the time my neck was fused. On day three in the hospital, I received an email of instructions from my surgeon. He clearly stated that he had now accomplished his job with the surgery and it was up to me to get out of bed, start walking, and take on the responsibility of helping myself heal and strengthen. It is often difficult for us to accept that we bear the lion's share of the responsibility in any successful treatment plan, but we do!

Ellen Lenox Smith suffers from Ehlers Danlos syndrome and sarcoidosis. Ellen and her husband Stuart live in Rhode Island. They are co-directors for medical marijuana advocacy for the U.S. Pain Foundation and serve as board members for the Rhode Island Patient Advocacy Coalition.

For more information about medical marijuana, visit their 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.

Should CDC’s Opioid Guidelines Be Revised?

By Pat Anson, Editor

Suicidal patients. Illegal drug use. Hoarding of pain pills. Pharmacists refusing to fill prescriptions. Doctors worried about going to jail. Chronic pain going untreated.

Those are some of the many problems uncovered in a PNN survey of nearly 3,400 pain patients, doctors and healthcare providers, one year after the release of opioid prescribing guidelines by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (see "Survey Finds CDC Opioid Guidelines Harming Patients"). The guidelines were meant to be voluntary and are only intended for primary care doctors, but they're being widely implemented throughout the U.S. healthcare system – often with negative consequences for the patients they were intended to help.

Over 70 percent of patients say doctors have either reduced or stopped their opioid medication. Eight out of ten say their pain and quality of life are worse. Nearly half are having suicidal thoughts and some are hoarding opioids or turning to the black market for pain relief.

And hardly anyone believes the guideline has been successful in reducing opioid abuse and overdoses.

“This is astounding, but not surprising,” says Lynn Webster, MD, a leading expert in pain management and a longtime critic of the CDC guideline. “It may be time for the CDC to consider inviting the pain community to help revise the guideline to more align with a public health policy that finds a better balance of avoiding opioid related problems, while also allowing opioids to be used in a responsible way.  

“The CDC should not have issued the guideline without a plan to measure its possible benefits and unintended consequences.”

Does the CDC even have such a plan? PNN asked the agency if one exists and also for a comment on the survey findings. We have yet to get a response. 

The founder and Executive Director of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP), an anti-opioid group that helped draft the guidelines, also declined to comment on the survey findings.

“I’m not going to want to comment either way,” said Andrew Kolodny, MD, before launching into a defense of the guideline.

“Since the CDC guideline came out, the bad news on opioids for chronic pain continues to increase. The evidence keeps getting stronger and stronger that opioids are lousy drugs for most people with chronic pain,” said Kolodny, who is Co-Director of the Opioid Policy Research Collaborative at Brandeis University.

“Opioids for chronic pain should be a rare treatment. And unfortunately the practice is widespread. Millions of people like your readers are victims of this aggressive prescribing,” he told PNN.

CDC Pledged to Revise Guideline if Needed

The closing words of the CDC guideline say the agency is “committed” to revising it if evidence is found that it's not helping patients or doctors.

“CDC will revisit this guideline as new evidence becomes available,” the agency pledged last year. “CDC is committed to evaluating the guideline to identify the impact of the recommendations on clinician and patient outcomes, both intended and unintended, and revising the recommendations in future updates when warranted.”

Some critics are skeptical that CDC has any intention to revise the guideline.

“I am not aware of any actions which would demonstrate that the CDC is actually open to revising their guideline, especially when they knew of the problems in advance of its release,” said Stephen Ziegler, PhD, a Professor Emeritus of Public Policy at Indiana University-Purdue University.

Instead of revising, did they instead opt to hire a PR firm? The negative outcomes, while unintended, were nevertheless foreseeable.”

Ziegler is referring to a contract the CDC signed last year with PRR – a Seattle-based public relations firm – to provide research and analysis for the agency. The research wasn’t focused on the “intended and unintended” impact of the guidelines, but on why they were received so poorly in the pain community.   

“They’ve heard a lot of outrage about this,” a source at PRR told us. “And so they hired our firm to gauge those perceptions and talk to people and come back to them with an analysis of what those perceptions are.”

Lynn Webster thinks the CDC needs to do more than hire a public relations consultant.

“I think it is time for Congress to ask the CDC to provide them a detailed report on the impact the opioid prescribing guideline has had on access to appropriate pain management, quality of care for people in pain, access to insurance coverage of alternative and complementary therapies recommended by the guideline, impact on the number of opioid related overdoses, rate of change reported in treatment for opioid use disorder, and change in possible suicide rate with people in pain due to inadequately treated pain,” said Webster, a former President of the American Academy of Pain Medicine.

Voluntary Recommendations Become Mandatory

Some believe the problem isn’t so much the wording of the guideline as the way it is being implemented by physicians, states, insurers and other federal agencies like the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). They’ve turned the CDC’s voluntary recommendations for primary care doctors into mandatory rules that all prescribers have to follow. 

“I've said about both the CDC guideline and the Washington state guidelines from years ago, that what they actually say isn't so bad. I can live with most of it. The problem is that people take what is there and turn it into something it shouldn't be,” said Bob Twillman, PhD, Executive Director of the Academy of Integrative Pain Management.

“With respect to the CDC guideline, the problem is that everyone is trying to turn it into laws, rules, and criteria for prior authorization for payment, and those things absolutely shouldn't be done. If everyone treated it as what it is -- a series of expert-drafted suggestions -- we'd be doing OK. It might even have helped a lot of people.”

Millions of veterans and Medicare beneficiaries are about to learn what Twillman means about the guideline being turned “into something it shouldn’t be.”  

CMS is planning to adopt new rules to “better align” its policies with the CDC’s.  Medicare’s “Opioid Misuse Strategy” not only makes the guidelines mandatory, it allows insurance companies to take punitive action against doctors, pharmacists and patients who don’t follow them.

The VA and Pentagon have also released new guidelines that take the CDC’s recommendations a big step further. They strongly recommend against prescribing opioids long-term to anyone under the age of 30, and urge VA and military doctors to taper or discontinue opioids for any patients currently receiving high doses.

“You should take a look at the VA guideline that just came out, if you don’t like the CDC guideline,” says Andrew Kolodny. “The VA guideline is even stronger. It says don’t give opioids. Opioids are not preferred. Don’t do it.”

Lost in the shuffle of all these new rules and regulations is the voice of pain patients. Many who responded to our survey are fearful of becoming disabled or bedridden if opioids are taken away from them. And some believe the government has an ulterior motive.

“This is a silent genocide aimed squarely at Baby Boomers. An expedited way to avoid paying Social Security benefits to those who are approaching retirement or are receiving benefits. I am ashamed of our country,” wrote one patient.

“Completely wrong approach which will, I believe, result in more addiction as patients experiencing intolerable suffering are forced to look outside the medical system for relief,” said another.

“This is going to backfire on the CDC, Medicare, Medicaid, etc. The CDC is punishing every single person on pain medications,” wrote another patient. “People will die because of this, but they don't seem to care about any of the consequences of these guidelines. Being in pain is a terrible thing, I know from experience. I wouldn't even be able to work if it weren't for my pain medication. This is all very stressing, and I only see bad results coming out of this.”

The online survey of 3,108 pain patients, 43 doctors and 235 other healthcare providers was conducted between February 15 and March 11 by Pain News Network and the International Pain Foundation (iPain).

To see the complete survey results, click here.

Survey Shows Doctors Shunning Chronic Pain Patients

By Pat Anson, Editor

Chronic pain patients are not only having problems getting opioid medication, most are finding it hard just finding a doctor willing to treat their pain, according to a new survey.

Nearly 3,400 patients, doctors and healthcare providers responded to the online survey by Pain News Network and the International Pain Foundation, which was designed to assess the impact of the CDC’s opioid prescribing guidelines after one year.

The guidelines are voluntary and only intended for primary care physicians, but are being implemented throughout the U.S. healthcare system, often with negative consequences for patients. Over 70 percent of patients said they are no longer being prescribed opioid medication or are getting a lower dose. 

Asked if it has become easier or harder to find a doctor willing to treat their chronic pain, nearly half of patients said it was harder and 11% said they were not able to find a doctor. 

“I have been unable to find a doctor to treat my pain. I was going to a pain doctor but she suddenly dropped all her chronic pain patients to focus on surgery,” said a patient who added that he is now buying pain medication on the black market.

“I have found a new primary care doctor that is OK with prescribing Valium but stated she won't treat chronic pain because ‘the DEA is watching all of us,’” wrote another patient.

"I have been told by more than one doctor that they cannot legally prescribe over the guidelines. They are very concerned about being investigated and as a result refuse to treat pain with an appropriate dose of opioids," said another patient.

HAS IT BECOME EASIER OR HARDER TO FIND A DOCTOR TO TREAT YOUR CHRONIC PAIN?

"I was weaned off opiates last summer," said a patient. "My lower back and head are now in constant pain. I tried to hang myself last December but failed and spent a few days in hospital. Everyone thinks it was bad fall. Next time I won't fail."

"You have taken away my life. I am no longer a member of society, but more importantly, I can no longer function as a mother to two disabled children. I have exhausted all alternative methods of treatment. What do I do now? Illicit drugs or suicide?" asked one mother.

Doctors and healthcare providers are well aware that pain patients are losing access to treatment. Over two-thirds (67%) acknowledge that it is harder for patients to find a doctor.  A small number (9%) admit they’ve stopped treating chronic pain patients.

“I feel a standard of care for pain management has been needed, but the chronic pain patient is being lost in the process,” wrote a pain management provider. “For the first time in 5 years, I had to tell a patient I did not know what to do to help them. Pain management needs regulations, but should not cause the quality of life of chronic pain patients to suffer.”

"The manner in which (the guideline) was issued and received seemed to cause a response in which patients were basically titrated off all medication. Over half of my patients were treated this way," said a psychologist.

"Further, there appeared to be little or no assistance or cooperation in this process of removing a patient's analgesic medication. Overall, I believe that the response to CDC guidelines has harmed legitimate pain patients."

Doctors Worried About Prosecution

Why are some doctors shunning pain patients? They’re not worth the risk or hassle may be the simplest way to explain it. Consider some of the problems healthcare providers say they've dealt with in the past year:

  • 59% say a pharmacy refused to fill an opioid prescription for a patient
  • 57% say insurance refused to pay for a pain treatment they thought necessary
  • 36% are worried about being prosecuted or sanctioned for prescribing opioids
  • 20% have discharged a patient for failing a drug test
  • 15% are referring more patients to addiction treatment
  • 10% have lost a pain patient to suicide

Only 12 percent said their patients were better off without opioids and just 16% said their patients were getting safer and more effective treatment since the guidelines were released. Over a third (38%) believe their patients have more pain and a reduced quality of life.

The survey also found a sizeable number of doctors and providers who mistakenly believe the CDC guidelines are mandatory for everyone. While 70% correctly recognize them as voluntary, 20% think they are mandatory and 10% of healthcare professionals admit they simply don’t know.

"When a government agency suggests treatment guidelines, they will become the law. That is currently happening. We have reduced the number of pain patients and are no longer accepting new pain patients. The fear of prosecution is very real," wrote one pain management doctor.

"They are being interpreted as mandates and creating fear about ever using opioids to treat pain appropriately," said a provider who treats geriatric patients.

“(They) need to make it even more clear that these guidelines are geared for primary care and not experienced board certified pain doctors. Creating hysteria is what this is doing,” said a pain management doctor.

“While well meaning, the guidelines are incredibly biased and my colleagues are using them as an excuse to arbitrarily exclude patients from opioids when they clearly need them,” wrote an emergency room doctor.

ARE THE CDC GUIDELINES VOLUNTARY OR MANDATORY RULES EVERYONE HAS TO FOLLOW?

There is a strong divergence between patients and providers about the safety and effectiveness of opioids. Nearly two-thirds of doctors and providers (64%) think there are safer and better alternatives than opioids, while only about 7 percent of patients think so.    

Another area of disagreement is whether the guidelines are causing more harm than good. The vast majority of patients -- over 95 percent -- believe they have been harmful, while only 40 percent of doctors and providers think so. Nearly one in four healthcare professionals (22%) believe the guidelines have been helpful to patients, while only about 1% of patients think so.

"We have two problems in the U.S. A drug addiction problem and a chronic pain problem. We should not be attempting to treat one problem if that will also create a worsening problem in those that suffer from the other," wrote a primary care doctor. "We need to work on a solution to the addiction problem while still allowing those with chronic pain that need the opioids in order to sustain an acceptable quality of life."

The online survey of 3,108 pain patients, 43 doctors and 235 other healthcare providers was conducted between February 15 and March 11. For more on how the guidelines are affecting patients, click here.

To see the complete survey results, click here.