FDA to Develop Acute Pain Guidelines

By Pat Anson, Editor

The head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is following up on a promise to develop new federal prescribing guidelines for treating short-term, acute pain. But don't expect an overhaul of the CDC's controversial opioid guideline.

FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb, MD, announced today that his agency has awarded a contract  to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) to help develop guidelines for prescribing opioids for acute pain that results from specific medical conditions or procedures, such as wisdom tooth removal or post-operative pain.  

The CDC guideline takes a one-size-fits-all approach to chronic pain -- pain that lasts longer than three months -- and doesn't distinguish between pain from fibromyalgia, arthritis, neuropathy or any other medical condition.  

"We’ve contracted with NASEM to conduct a consensus study and issue a report on its findings. This work will begin with an identification and prioritization of procedures and conditions associated with acute pain for which opioid analgesics are commonly prescribed and where evidence-based clinical practice guidelines would help inform prescribing practices," Gottlieb said in a statement.

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"We acknowledge the work of our colleagues at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) who have taken an initial step in developing federal guidelines on pain management and the use of opioids which are based on expert opinion. Our work seeks to build on that work by generating evidence-based guidelines where needed. The guidelines we generate would be distinct from this corresponding effort by the CDC, in that our effort would be indication-specific." 

Importantly, Gottlieb says NASEM will hold a series of public meetings and workshops, and seek input from "a broad range of stakeholders" from different medical specialties. The CDC guideline was initially developed with no public hearings and with little input from pain management experts.

While Gottlieb clearly wants more transparency brought to the guideline development process, he also clings to the notion that opioid medication is overprescribed and is primarily responsible for the nation's opioid crisis.

"Many people who become addicted to opioids will first be exposed to these drugs through a lawfully prescribed medication. Unfortunately, the fact remains that there are still too many prescriptions being written for opioids," Gottlieb said.

"Our analyses suggest that the first prescription for many common, acute indications could typically be for many fewer pills – maybe just a day or two of medication rather than a 30-day supply, which is typically prescribed. In some cases, the excess pills that aren’t used by patients may end up being diverted to illicit markets or misused or abused by friends or family members. In other cases, patients who are prescribed more medication than necessary may find themselves at increased risks for misuse, abuse and addiction."

But studies show that long-term opioid use by patients recovering from surgery is rare and less than one percent of legally prescribed opioids are diverted.

In 2016, the American Pain Society released guidelines that encourage physicians to limit the use of opioids and offer “multimodal therapies” to patients suffering from postoperative pain. Among the treatments suggested are pregabalin, gabapentin, NSAIDs and acetaminophen.

The University of Michigan has also developed prescribing guidelines for over a dozen common surgeries, ranging from hernia repair to hysterectomies. The recommendations list the suggested dose of opioids and number of pills for each procedure.      

Several states have already adopted their own guidelines for acute pain, limiting opioids to a few days' supply -- regardless of whether the pain is from a broken leg, a tonsillectomy or gunshot wound.  It's not clear how federal guidelines for acute pain would impact state regulations.