A Pained Life: The Good and Bad about CDC Guidelines

By Carol Levy, Columnist

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention begins the summary of its new opioid guidelines by stating: “This guideline provides recommendations for primary care providers who are prescribing opioids for chronic pain outside of active cancer treatment, palliative care, and end-of-life care.”

I have issue with some of the guidelines. Other parts I think are common sense, although I know many will disagree with me.

That being said, the guidelines negate themselves when they state they are not aimed at those receiving palliative care, which is described as: “Palliative care is specialized medical care for people with serious illnesses. It focuses on providing patients with relief from the symptoms and stress of a serious illness. The goal is to improve quality of life for both the patient and the family.”

That definition clearly includes those with chronic pain illnesses and disorders. As such it does not make sense to go after us as the main culprits of the alleged opioid epidemic.  I write alleged because there seems to be much controversy whether the epidemic exists, its cause, and the medications involved, some of which are either gotten illegally or are themselves illegal, such as heroin.

These are the guidelines:

1) Non-pharmacologic therapy and non-opioid medication are preferred for chronic pain. If opioids are used, they should be combined with non-opioid drugs and therapy as appropriate.

2) Before starting opioids for chronic pain, clinicians should establish treatment goals, including realistic goals for pain and function, and consider how opioid therapy will be discontinued if benefits do not outweigh risks.

3) Before starting and periodically during opioid therapy, clinicians should discuss known risks and realistic benefits of opioid therapy.

4) When starting opioid therapy for chronic pain, clinicians should prescribe immediate-release opioids instead of extended-release/long-acting opioids.

5) When opioids are started, clinicians should prescribe the lowest effective dosage.

6) Long-term opioid use often begins with treatment of acute pain. Clinicians should prescribe the lowest effective dose of immediate-release opioids and no greater quantity than needed for the expected duration of severe pain. Three days or less will often be sufficient; more than seven days will rarely be needed.

7) Clinicians should evaluate benefits and harms within 1 to 4 weeks of starting opioids or dose escalation, and should evaluate benefits and harms every 3 months. If harm outweighs benefits clinician should work with patients to taper opioids to lower dosages or discontinue.

8) Before starting and periodically during continuation of opioid therapy, clinicians should evaluate risk factors for opioid-related harms.

9) Clinicians should review the patient’s history of controlled substance prescriptions.

10) When prescribing opioids for chronic pain, clinicians should use urine drug testing before starting opioid therapy and consider urine drug testing at least annually.

11) Clinicians should avoid prescribing opioid pain medication and benzodiazepines concurrently.

12) Clinicians should offer or arrange evidence-based treatment.

Most of these guidelines seem to be to be based on common sense; however I take great umbrage at the recommendation about urine drug testing. I do not know of any other patient group where a patient is presumed guilty or felonious. It casts cast a black mark on every person who has a chronic pain disorder and for whom opiates are prescribed.

The guidelines also miss the mark by not differentiating between patients for whom physical and alternative therapies can help and those they cannot. For instance, trigeminal neuralgia and other cranial neuropathies will get no benefit whatsoever from those kinds of therapies. Lupus, multiple sclerosis, chronic regional pain syndrome (CRPS/RSD), and many other conditions are also not responsive or greatly responsive to physical therapy, targeted injections and other types of nonopiod therapies.

Suggesting other forms of therapy for a population that is not helped by them is not palliative, in any sense of the word.

However, I think we hurt ourselves when we jump on a bandwagon and say the whole idea of guidelines are hurtful to our community. We need to look at them clearly.

It should be pro forma that the doctor talk to his patient about the harms and benefits of any prescribed treatment. It should be standard practice for a doctor to evaluate if the treatment is helping or not, and make any necessary changes.

It is only logical that the medical community treat the chronic pain community as they would any other; with professionalism, common sense, decency, and thoughtful help.

Carol Jay Levy has lived with trigeminal neuralgia, a chronic facial pain disorder, for over 30 years. She is the author of “A Pained Life, A Chronic Pain Journey.” 

Carol is the moderator of the Facebook support group “Women in Pain Awareness.” Her blog “The Pained Life” can be found here.

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.