Should Patients Learn to Live with Chronic Pain?

By Pat Anson, Editor

Chronic pain patients should learn how to live with their pain and pain relief should not be the primary focus of doctors who treat them, according to two influential physicians in a commentary published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

“Is a reduction in pain intensity the right goal for the treatment of chronic pain?” ask Jane Ballantyne, MD, and Mark Sullivan, MD. "We have watched as opioids have been used with increasing frequency and in escalating doses in an attempt to drive down pain scores — all the while increasing rates of toxic drug effects, exposing vulnerable populations to risk, and failing to relieve the burden of chronic pain at the population level."

“We propose that pain intensity is not the best measure of the success of chronic-pain treatment. When pain is chronic, its intensity isn't a simple measure of something that can be easily fixed," they wrote in answer to their question.

Ballantyne is President of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP), an advocacy group that seeks to end the overprescribing of opioid pain medication. She is also a member of the “Core Expert Group” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is consulting with in drafting new guidelines for opioid prescribing.

Sullivan is a professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Washington School of Medicine, and is executive director of Collaborative Opioid Prescribing Education (COPE), a program that educates healthcare providers about safe opioid prescribing practices.

In their commentary, Ballantyne and Sullivan say it’s a mistake for doctors to treat chronic pain sufferers the same way they would treat patients who are terminally ill or have short-term acute pain. They also recommend that doctors be less reliant on pain scales, such as the Wong-Baker pain scale, to measure pain intensity.

“Reliance on pain-intensity ratings tends to result in the use of opioid treatment for patients with mental health or substance abuse problems who are least likely to benefit from opioid treatment and most likely to be harmed by it,” they wrote.

“Borrowing treatment principles from acute and end-of-life pain care, particularly a focus on pain-intensity scores, has had unfortunate and harmful consequences. The titrate-to-effect principle fails when pain is chronic, because our best chronic-pain treatments don't produce an immediate or substantial change in pain intensity.

Instead of relying on opioids for pain relief, Ballantyne and Sullivan say chronic pain patients need “multimodal treatment” that includes physical and behavioral therapy. They also stress that patients should learn to accept pain and get on with their lives.

Many of the interdisciplinary and multimodal treatments recommended in the National Pain Strategy use coping and acceptance strategies that primarily reduce the suffering associated with pain and only secondarily reduce pain intensity. Willingness to accept pain, and engagement in valued life activities despite pain, may reduce suffering and disability without necessarily reducing pain intensity,” they wrote.

Ballantyne is one of five PROP board members who are advising the CDC about its opioid prescribing guidelines. Those guidelines, which recommend “non-pharmacological” and non-opioid treatments for chronic pain, are scheduled to be finalized in January 2016. A draft version of the guidelines was released in September and can be found here.

In a survey of over 2,000 pain patients by Pain News Network and the Power of Pain Foundation, 9 out of 10 said more people will suffer than be helped by the guidelines. Large majorities also predicted that doctors would prescribe fewer or no opioids, there would be more suicides in the pain community, and that the guidelines will result in more addiction and overdoses, not less.