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.

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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.