Is Palliative Care an Option for Chronic Pain Patients?

By Rochelle Odell, PNN Columnist

Most of us have heard about 2016 CDC Opioid Guideline, which is supposed to be a voluntary guideline for primary care physicians treating non-cancer pain.

What has happened? In the span of two years the guideline has seemingly become law. Countless pain patients have made the trek to their doctor dreading the thought that their lifeline -- opioid pain medication – will be reduced or even discontinued.

Pain patients are often forced into surgical procedures such as epidural steroid injections or implants of spinal cord stimulators and other medical devices. The implants and injections all too often create more problems than they help. I know because I have had three different stimulators implanted and removed, as well as two pain pumps. The devices ultimately damaged my spine, compounding my Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS). 

Many of us are told if we do not undergo these invasive procedures our opioid medication will be stopped.  We are then forced to find a new physician for pain medication, a search that is often futile.

What happened to “patient driven healthcare” and freedom of choice in the so-called opioid epidemic? Is there anything patients can do?

Yes, we can request our physician determine if we meet the requirements for palliative care, which is specifically exempt from the CDC guideline.

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Palliative care is often confused with end-of-life or hospice care, but imminent death is not a requirement for palliative care. The CDC defines palliative care in a way that many chronic and intractable pain patients would qualify for:

“Palliative care is defined… as care that provides relief from pain and other symptoms, supports quality of life, and is focused on patients with serious advanced illness. Palliative care can begin early in the course of treatment for any serious illness that requires excellent management of pain or other distressing symptoms for cancer.”

The World Health Organization (WHO) takes a similar broad view of palliative care:

“Palliative care is an approach that improves the quality of life of patients and their families facing the problem associated with life-threatening illness, through the prevention and relief of suffering by means of early identification and impeccable assessment and treatment of pain and other problems, physical, psychosocial and spiritual.”

According to WHO, palliative care should include “a support system to help patients live as actively as possible” and “enhances quality of life.”

If these palliative care conditions are met, does it mean we are safe from having our opioid medication cutoff? Not necessarily. but it’s an option we should ask our doctors about.

Therein lies a possible roadblock. Too many physicians, nurses and healthcare organizations still associate palliative care with cancer and other diseases where the only outcome is death. 

The Alliance for the Treatment of Intractable Pain (ATIP) is working to enhance and clarify the definition of palliative care to include those suffering from chronic, intractable pain that may not be terminal. Cancer pain isn't necessarily different or anymore painful than the pain suffered by CRPS patients. Our pain is often worse, as there is no end in sight. The pain lasts a whole lifetime and we do not get better.

A case in point regarding the confusion over palliative care. A friend of mine was told that she qualified for palliative care. Great, one might think.  Her pain medication is still being prescribed, but her physician is afraid of losing his license and will not continue to prescribe her current dose or increase it. She will have to find a new pain management physician, assuming she can find one. 

I have been requesting for over two months that I be evaluated for palliative care, but my own pain management group "does not do palliative care." My case manager told me palliative care is only meant to keep the patient out the hospital.

My primary care physician's office has been working on my request and recently a doctor from Home Health Care came to my home to evaluate me. Not for palliative care, but for Transitional Care Management (TCM), a term I had not heard of. 

TCM is very much like palliative care in that the patient receives care from any needed medical specialty. A support system is put in place and whatever specialist I need to see will be covered.  The physician who did the evaluation based it not only on my medical records but by interviewing me and going over all my physical and mental health requirements. He noted I had been on high dose opioids and anti-anxiety medication and functioned with both them. He also recommended that my opioid medications be increased.

Will they be increased? I don't know yet, but a Home Health Care nurse will now be coming to my home on a regular basis. Unless I am unconscious and basically on death's door, I will not go to an emergency room for treatment. I refuse to wait hours on end only to be treated like a drug seeker. The nurse will come to my home and give me opioid medication if I need it. That is a definite plus and something I will not abuse.

These two avenues of palliative care and transitional care management appear to be a chronic pain patient's only options. Many doctors may not initiate either one. It is often the patient or patient's family who must push for care. Being alone and with no help means I will have to do more research and seek care even if it means contacting my physician's office multiple times. It’s the only option I have.

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Rochelle Odell resides in California. She’s lived for nearly 25 years with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS/RSD).

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.