The Abyss of Chronic Pain

By David Hanscom, MD, PNN Columnist

One afternoon, I was listening to a pain patient attempt to describe the depth of her suffering, and it hit me how dark and deep this hole of chronic pain can be.

I had a flashback to my own experience with pain. Not only did I not know how I ended up in that level of misery, I had no hope and wasn’t being given any answers. I kept descending deeper and deeper into darkness.

Words couldn’t come close to describing my physical and mental suffering, but the image that came to mind was a deep dark abyss. I will never forget what it was like to be there and trapped in the abyss for over 15 years.

One night, I was driving across a bridge when suddenly my heart began to pound.  I couldn’t breathe, began sweating and became light-headed. I thought I was going to die. It was the first of many panic attacks. And it became much worse. I sank into a deep depression.

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I honestly had no clue at the time that my anxiety and other symptoms were all linked together by sustained levels of stress hormones, such as adrenaline, cortisol and histamines.

I couldn’t sleep because of endless racing thoughts. My ears were ringing and my feet constantly burned. I began to get migraine headaches weekly. My scalp itched, and skin rashes would pop up all over my body and then disappear. I experienced intermittent crushing chest pain.

As unpleasant as these physical symptoms were, it wasn’t the worst part of the story.

I began a relentless search for answers. What was happening to me? My life went from being a hard-working young physician with a bright future to just trying to survive. As a spine surgeon in a large city, I had access to the best medical care and underwent all sorts of imaging and blood testing. No one could tell me what was going on. I became increasingly frustrated and moody.

After seven years of this, I lost my marriage. No marriage could have survived the obsessive energy I was using to try and escape from the abyss.

My anxiety progressed to a full-blown obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), which is characterized by repetitive and vivid intrusive thoughts. It was brutal. I had always thought that OCD was a joke, but it may be the worst mentally painful experience in human existence. I looked up the treatment and prognosis for it, and it was dismal.

My mind began to play tricks on me. I become an “epiphany addict.” I was sure I could find an answer if I looked hard enough. I read book after book, saw doctors, tried different medications, practiced meditation, and discussed my situation with anyone who would listen. That number grew smaller, as people got tired of listening to me and I became increasingly socially isolated.  

Every aspect of this experience was miserable but the loneliness I felt was the worst. Being alone, I had more time to think about my misery and became fearful that people didn’t want to be around me. I hadn’t realized how terrible being lonely could be.

I wanted to quit being a doctor, but my instincts told me to hang on. I still enjoyed performing complex spine surgery and running my practice. I liked my staff, colleagues and patients. In retrospect, that may have been the one thing that provided the structure to keep me going. My personal life had disintegrated.

As I write this column, I still feel woefully inadequate to find the words to characterize the intensity of my suffering. I was in this hole for over 15 years and crossed the line to end it all.

Learning How to Feel Good Again

Then in 2003, I picked up a book by Dr. David Burns, called Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy.” It’s about self-directed cognitive behavioral therapy.  Burns was adamant from the beginning of the book that the key to recovery was to start writing. His format is a three-column technique where you write down your disruptive thoughts, categorize them into one of 10 “cognitive distortions,” and then write down more rational thoughts.

I began to write for hours and for the first time in 15 years felt a shift in my mood and thinking. Burns is right, the act of writing is important. There are now over 1,000 research papers documenting the effectiveness of this approach.  

Six months after I began this therapy, I connected (badly) with my deep-seated anger and was completely miserable for about 2 weeks. But as I emerged from this fog, I began to feel better. All of my physical symptoms eventually disappeared, including my headaches, burning in my feet, anxiety, and tinnitus.

It all goes back to the stress hormones. When you are trapped by anything, especially pain, your body is exposed to sustained levels of stress chemicals and each organ will react in its own specific way. Today, my symptoms remain at minimal levels unless they are triggered, and I have learned how to quickly return to feeling good.

There are many additional layers to the healing journey that are presented on my website. Each person will relate to the concepts in a different way, but the outcomes have been consistently good. There is a recent research paper that shows simply learning about the neuroscience of chronic pain can significantly reduce it.

I got incredibly lucky and feel fortunate to be able to pass along these healing concepts to my patients. It has been an unexpected and rewarding phase of my career.

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Dr. David Hanscom is a spinal surgeon who has helped hundreds of back pain sufferers by teaching them how to calm their central nervous systems without the use of drugs or surgery.

In his book Back in ControlHanscom shares the latest developments in neuroscience research and his own personal history with pain.

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.

Can Sugar Pills Relieve Chronic Pain?

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

“Sugar pills relieve pain for chronic pain patients”

That is the actual headline in a news release issued this week by the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University. If you’re a pain sufferer and that doesn’t make you laugh or get your blood boiling – then the rest of this article probably will.

So be forewarned.

In an age when many chronic pain patients are being urged to try yoga, meditation, acupuncture and plain old aspirin, Northwestern researchers have concluded that many could find pain relief in a sugar pill.

That conclusion is based on a lengthy but small study of 63 patients with chronic back pain.  Twenty patients were given no treatment, while the rest were given a placebo – a sugar pill that they were told was pain medication. No one was given an actual painkiller.

Over the course of 8 weeks, participants tracked their pain on a smartphone app, MRI brain images were taken, and psychological profiles of each patient were made.

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The study, published in the journal Nature Communications, found that about half the patients who took the placebo had a 30 percent reduction in pain, a level considered just as effective as a real painkiller.

Researchers said patients who responded to the sugar pills had a similar brain anatomy and psychological traits. The right side of their emotional brain was larger than the left, and they had a larger sensory area than people who did not respond to the placebo. The placebo responders also were more emotionally self-aware, sensitive to painful situations and mindful of their environment.

“This is the first brain imaging RCT (randomized controlled trial) specifically designed to study chronic pain patients receiving placebo pills compared to a no treatment arm,” said senior study author A. Vania Apkarian, PhD, a professor of physiology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.  

“Daily pain ratings from a smart phone revealed that patients receiving placebo pills showed stronger pain reduction and a higher response rate compared to patients in the no treatment arm, indicating that placebo pills successfully induced analgesia that could not be explained by the natural history of the patient or the mere exposure to the study.”

Doctors ‘Should Seriously Consider’ Placebos

Although his study is small and needs to be replicated, Apkarian thinks doctors should put his findings to work.

"Clinicians who are treating chronic pain patients should seriously consider that some will get as good a response to a sugar pill as any other drug," he said. "They should use it and see the outcome. This opens up a whole new field."

Giving pain patients sugar pills would not only save healthcare costs, Apkarian says they would eliminate the risk of addiction and other side-effects from pharmaceutical drugs.

"It's much better to give someone a non-active drug rather than an active drug and get the same result," Apkarian said. "Most pharmacological treatments have long-term adverse effects or addictive properties. Placebo becomes as good an option for treatment as any drug we have on the market."

The medical community has long known about the potency of the placebo effect and put it to use. Doctors as far back as the late 18th century used placebo treatments “more to please than benefit the patient.”

Today, the gold standard of clinical trials is a “placebo-controlled study” in which some participants are given sugar pills and sham treatments. The medication or therapy being studied has to be found more effective than the placebo for the study to be considered a success.

Time magazine recently published a cover story on placebos, sharing the stories of real patients who find relief in placebo pills even though they know they’re fake.

You don’t need to enroll in a clinical study to take placebos. You can buy a bottle of Zeebo’s “honest placebo pills” for $14.95 on Amazon. Some of the reviews for Zeebo are hilarious.

“I have not bought this product, but just reading about it brightened my day. And the comfort of knowing that if I ever needed a good placebo, its right here available with free shipping and two day delivery. I feel better already!” said one reviewer.

“The pills do every thing promised, which is nothing,” wrote another reviewer. “I purchased them in the forlorn hope that they would fool my demented wife that they helped to relieve her chronic pain. I didn't expect much going in and I wasn't disappointed.”

Many Invasive Surgeries No Better Than Placebo

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

In an age when doctors are urged not to prescribe opioids, many patients are being told to have surgery or other invasive procedures to treat their chronic pain.

But a systematic review of 25 clinical trials found little evidence that invasive surgeries are more effective than placebo or sham procedures in reducing low back and knee pain. The study was published in the journal Pain Medicine.

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"Our findings raise several questions for clinicians, researchers, and policy-makers. First, can we justify widespread use of these procedures without rigorous testing?" said lead author Wayne Jonas, MD, a Professor of Family Medicine at Georgetown University School of Medicine.

“Given their high cost and safety concerns, more rigorous studies are required before invasive procedures are routinely used for patients with chronic pain.”

The invasive procedures that were analyzed include arthroscopic, endoscopic and laparoscopic surgeries, as well as radiofrequency ablations, laser treatments and other interventions.

In each study, researchers also performed sham or placebo procedures on a control group where they faked the invasive procedure. Patients did not know which intervention (real or sham) they received. Researchers then compared the patients’ pain intensity, disability, health-related quality of life, use of medication, adverse events, and other factors.

They found that reduction in disability did not differ between the two groups three months after the procedures or at six months. Seven of the studies on low back pain and three on knee osteoarthritis showed no difference in pain intensity at six months compared with the sham procedures.

“There is little evidence for the specific efficacy beyond sham for invasive procedures in chronic pain. A moderate amount of evidence does not support the use of invasive procedures as compared with sham procedures for patients with chronic back or knee pain,” said Jonas.

Invasive treatments are being increasingly used as an alternative to opioids. Americans spent an estimated $45 billion on surgery for chronic low back pain and $41 billion on arthroplasty for knee pain in 2014.

Several previous studies have also questioned the value of arthroplasty. Over 850,000 arthroscopic surgeries are performed every year to relieve knee pain in the UK and the United States. But a 2015 study published in the BMJ questioned the evidence behind the surgery and said it provides only “small inconsequential benefit.”

FDA Wants More Medical Devices to Treat Pain

By Pat Anson, Editor

The deadline is fast approaching for companies to enter the Food and Drug Administration’s medical device challenge, a contest of sorts aimed at stimulating the development of new technologies to treat pain and prevent opioid abuse.

The FDA announced the innovation program in May and the deadline for applications is September 30.  Medical devices in any state of development – including those already on the market – are eligible for submission.

“Medical devices, including digital health devices like mobile medical apps, have the potential to play a unique and important role in tackling the opioid crisis,” FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, MD, said in a statement. “Better medical devices that can effectively address local pain syndromes can, in some cases, supplant the use of systemic opioids. This can help reduce overall use of opioids.”

Devices that are found to innovative will receive a “breakthrough device” designation from the FDA – similar to the “fast track” designation that the agency gives to promising pharmaceutical drugs. With fewer regulatory hurdles, companies can bring their products to the market sooner.

“I think its great. It’s exactly the kind of thing that’s needed,” said Shai Gozani, MD, President and CEO of NeuroMetrix, the maker of Quell. “It’s a little unclear what exactly they’ll offer to the winners. It looks like they’ll give you intensive help for a period of time to climb the regulatory pathway."

In recent years, the FDA has granted or approved over 200 devices related to the treatment and management of pain. One of them was Quell – a nerve stimulation device worn just below the knee – that relieves pain without drugs in patients suffering from arthritis, neuropathy, fibromyalgia and other chronic conditions. Since its release in 2015, over 150,000 Quell devices have been shipped.

This week NeuroMetrix released Quell 2.0 – an updated version that is half the size and weight. Customers wanted a smaller device to make it easier and more comfortable to wear throughout the day and while sleeping.

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NEUROMETRIX IMAGE

“The feedback we got from customers over the past three years is that the single most valuable way to improve the product was to make it smaller,” said Gozani.  “Quell 2.0 is half the size, without any sacrifice in the electric stimulation characteristics. In fact, we increased the power by 20 percent, which allows us to stretch the range of patients that can be treated even further.”    

Gozani told PNN there is no single disorder or medical condition that Quell works best on -– it depends more on the individual, who may live with a variety of different conditions.

“Most people who use our product typically have five sites of pain and three or four medical conditions. It’s not like you can say that person has diabetes or that person has lower back pain or knee osteoarthritis. It all overlaps,” he said. “Surprisingly, we’ve seen that it works better in older adults than in younger.”

PNN columnist Jennifer Kilgore, who lives with chronic back pain, has used Quell every day for three years. She appears below in this promotional video for Quell.

A major difference between Quell 2.0 and the older “classic” Quell is that the new version is operated entirely by an app. It adjusts therapy automatically based on body position and doesn’t need to be turned on and off.

Quell is sold over-the-counter, does not require a prescription and is not usually covered by insurance. Quell 2.0 sells for $299, while the classic Quell is still available at $249. There’s a 60-day money back guarantee for both.

For more information, click here.

Why 'Mindful People' Feel Less Pain

By Pat Anson, Editor

Mindfulness meditation is a form of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) that is often recommended to chronic pain patients as a way to temporarily relieve their pain, anxiety and depression. 

Does it work? Pain sufferers report mixed results.

“I have tried CBT and mindfulness. They made me feel much worse emotionally, paradoxically enough, made me more acutely aware of the pain,” one reader told us.

“The quackery continues,” wrote another. “This is a modern day lobotomy experiment.”

“Mindful meditation is a wonderful tool in managing chronic pain and the depression that comes with it,” said another. “Those of us suffering daily need every tool in the shed.”

Researchers at Wake Forest University may have discovered why mindfulness works for some, but not for others. Their brains react differently to meditation.

"We now know that some people are more mindful than others, and those people seemingly feel less pain," said Fadel Zeidan, PhD, an assistant professor of neurobiology and anatomy at Wake Forest School of Medicine.

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WAKE FOREST UNIVERSITY

In a study involving 76 healthy volunteers, Zeidan and his colleagues found that a part of the brain that processes self-related thoughts, feelings and emotions is more active in people who reported higher pain levels during mindfulness meditation.

While practicing mindfulness, MRI’s were taken of the volunteers’ brains as they were exposed to painful heat stimulation (120°F).

Analysis of the MRIs revealed that those who reported lower pain levels when exposed to heat had less activity in the posterior cingulate cortex. Conversely, those that reported higher pain levels had more activity in that critical part of the brain.

"The results from our study showed that mindful individuals are seemingly less caught up in the experience of pain, which was associated with lower pain reports," said Zeidan. "Now we have some new ammunition to target this brain region in the development of effective pain therapies. Importantly this work shows that we should consider one's level of mindfulness when calculating why and how one feels less or more pain." 

The study is being published in the journal PAIN.

A previous study by Zeidan found that mindfulness activates parts of the brain associated with pain control, while it deactivated another brain region (the thalamus) that regulates sensory information. By deactivating the thalamus, meditation may cause signals about pain to simply fade away.

In addition to relieving pain, there is increasing evidence that meditation and CBT are effective in treating mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression and stress. One study, published in the British Medical Journal, found that online mindfulness courses were often just as effective as face-to-face meetings with a therapist.

You can sample a relaxing online pain management meditation at Meditainment.com (click here to see it). The initial course is free.

‘Art Rx’ Museum Tours Relieve Chronic Pain

By Pat Anson, Editor

A small pilot study by researchers at the University of California, Davis has uncovered a novel way of temporarily relieving chronic pain: Visit an art museum.

The Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento hosted a series of “Art Rx” private tours for 56 patients with chronic pain. The one-hour tours were designed not to be physically challenging and to encourage participants to talk with each other about the artwork they were seeing --- not just silently view it.

Patients were surveyed about their pain before and immediately after the docent-led tour, as well as three weeks later.

The study findings, published in the journal Pain Medicine, found that over 57 percent of the patients reported a decrease in their pain levels during the tour.

“So we get there, and I’m already in pain, but truly we were having this discussion and I just wasn’t thinking about it. I was having a good time,” one patient said.

“(Art Rx) took my mind elsewhere,” said another. “Physically I still have pain, but I feel good mentally, and I think part of my pain lessens when I feel good mentally.”

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CROCKER ART MUSEUM

For some, the pain relief lasted for weeks. Several patients noted that the tours made them more aware of how their pain made them socially and emotionally isolated, so they took steps to increase their social interaction. Some met socially with Art Rx participants they met during the tours or joined an art-based community group.

“If you’re involved and doing things with people, you’re not shut in; you’re not focused on the pain,” one participant said.

“If anything it drives home for me how important it was to make sure that I get out," said another. "In a way, it should be an aspect of my health regime.”

“(Participants) found Art Rx to be, among other things, inclusive, validating, and socially engaging. These qualities stood in stark contrast to the isolating nature of chronic pain described in their personal histories and the negative encounters many of them had with the health care system,” wrote lead author Ian Koebner, PhD, a professor at the School of Medicine, University of California, Davis.

“Socially based interventions for individuals with chronic pain supported by health care organizations, such as Art Rx, may help to mitigate not only the experience of isolation, but also the distressing associations that many individuals with chronic pain have with the health care system.”  

The UC Davis findings are similar to those reported recently in a large 10-year study of over 2,600 healthy older adults in England. Researchers found that participants who attended museums, concerts, art galleries and other cultural activities were significantly less likely to develop chronic pain as they grew older.

The "Art Rx" tours at the Crocker Art Museum began in 2014 and are held every other month at no cost to the public. For more information, click here.

How Low Dose Naltrexone Relieved My Chronic Pain

By Marelle Reid, Guest Columnist

For the past eight years I've been dealing with Interstitial Cystitis (IC), a chronic pain condition that feels like a bladder infection that never ends. No one really knows what causes IC and there is no cure.

I've tried everything from surgery and homeopathy to narcotics and antidepressants, but nothing seemed to work until I discovered Low Dose Naltrexone (LDN). A hormone specialist suggested I use LDN as a way to combat the nerve pain that had plagued me for years. I figured I might as well try it since the only side effects from LDN are trouble sleeping and vivid dreams.

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MARELLE REID

After a couple of weeks I found the strange dreams stopped, and a few months later I realized I was able to eat foods I normally would avoid because they made my IC pain worse. In fact, I was able to resume a completely normal diet, including foods and drinks that would have previously sent me into terrible flare.

For the past year I've been taking 4.5mg naltrexone at night just before bed. Although it has not cured me, I've been thrilled to find that it has reduced my pain to the point where I no longer feel held back from doing anything I would have done before I was diagnosed with IC. 

Naltrexone is the same drug used to treat alcoholism and opioid addiction. In larger doses (50mg) it blocks opioid receptors in the brain and decreases the desire to take opiates or alcohol.  It's believed that taking naltrexone in smaller doses stimulates the immune system and the production of endorphins, the body's natural painkiller.

LDN is prescribed "off label" for many conditions, but it isn't well known as a treatment for chronic pain because it's not marketed by any drug company for that purpose. The patent on naltrexone expired years ago and there's little money to be made from it or to conduct clinical trials.

However, a review of anecdotal information online and in social media suggests many people suffering from Crohn's disease, multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia and other chronic illnesses believe they have benefited from taking LDN. (See "Naltrexone Changed Life of Fibromyalgia Patient").

I hope others can find the same relief that I have. 

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Marelle Reid lives in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Pain News Network invites other readers to share their stories with us. Send them to editor@painnewsnetwork.org.

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.

The Man Who Sold America on Vitamin D

By Liz Szabo, Kaiser Health News

Dr. Michael Holick’s enthusiasm for vitamin D can be fairly described as extreme.

The Boston University endocrinologist, who perhaps more than anyone else is responsible for creating a billion-dollar vitamin D sales and testing juggernaut, elevates his own levels of the stuff with supplements and fortified milk. When he bikes outdoors, he won’t put sunscreen on his limbs. He has written book-length odes to vitamin D, and has warned in multiple scholarly articles about a “vitamin D deficiency pandemic” that explains disease and suboptimal health across the world.

His fixation is so intense that it extends to the dinosaurs. What if the real problem with that asteroid 65 million years ago wasn’t a lack of food, but the weak bones that follow a lack of sunlight? “I sometimes wonder,” Holick has written, “did the dinosaurs die of rickets and osteomalacia?”

Holick’s role in drafting national vitamin D guidelines, and the embrace of his message by mainstream doctors and wellness gurus alike, have helped push supplement sales to $936 million in 2017. That’s a ninefold increase over the previous decade. Lab tests for vitamin D deficiency have spiked, too: Doctors ordered more than 10 million for Medicare patients in 2016, up 547 percent since 2007, at a cost of $365 million. About 1 in 4 adults 60 and older now take vitamin D supplements.

But few of the Americans swept up in the vitamin D craze are likely aware that the industry has sent a lot of money Holick’s way.

A Kaiser Health News investigation found that he has used his prominent position in the medical community to promote practices that financially benefit corporations that have given him hundreds of thousands of dollars — including drugmakers, the indoor-tanning industry and one of the country’s largest commercial labs.

In an interview, Holick acknowledged he has worked as a consultant to Quest Diagnostics, which performs vitamin D tests, since 1979.

Holick, who is 72, said that industry funding “doesn’t influence me in terms of talking about the health benefits of vitamin D.”

DR. MICHAEL HOLICK

DR. MICHAEL HOLICK

There is no question that the hormone is important. Without enough of it, bones can become thin, brittle and misshapen, causing a condition called rickets in children and osteomalacia in adults. The issue is how much vitamin D is healthy, and what level constitutes deficiency.

Windfall for Vitamin D Industry

Holick’s crucial role in shaping that debate occurred in 2011. Late the previous year, the prestigious National Academy of Medicine (then known as the Institute of Medicine), a group of independent scientific experts, issued a comprehensive, 1,132-page report on vitamin D deficiency. It concluded that the vast majority of Americans get plenty of the hormone through diet and sunlight, and advised doctors to test only patients at high risk of vitamin D-related disorders, such as osteoporosis.

A few months later, in June 2011, Holick oversaw the publication of a report that took a starkly different view. The paper, in the peer-reviewed Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, was on behalf of the Endocrine Society, the field’s foremost professional group, whose guidelines are widely used by hospitals, physicians and commercial labs nationwide, including Quest. The society adopted Holick’s position that “vitamin D deficiency is very common in all age groups” and advocated a huge expansion of vitamin D testing, targeting more than half the United States population, including those who are black, Hispanic or obese — groups that tend to have lower vitamin D levels than others.

The recommendations were a financial windfall for the vitamin D industry. By advocating such widespread testing, the Endocrine Society directed more business to Quest and other commercial labs. Vitamin D tests are now the fifth-most-common lab test covered by Medicare.

The guidelines benefited the vitamin D industry in another important way. Unlike the National Academy, which concluded that patients have sufficient vitamin D when their blood levels are at or above 20 nanograms per milliliter, the Endocrine Society said vitamin D levels need to be much higher — at least 30 nanograms per milliliter. Many commercial labs, including Quest and LabCorp, adopted the higher standard.

Yet there’s no evidence that people with the higher level are any healthier than those with the lower level, said Dr. Clifford Rosen, a senior scientist at the Maine Medical Center Research Institute and co-author of the National Academy report. Using the Endocrine Society’s higher standard creates the appearance of an epidemic, he said, because it labels 80 percent of Americans as having inadequate vitamin D.

“We see people being tested all the time and being treated based on a lot of wishful thinking, that you can take a supplement to be healthier,” Rosen said.

Patients with low vitamin D levels are often prescribed supplements and instructed to get checked again in a few months, said Dr. Alex Krist, a family physician and vice chairman of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, an expert panel that issues health advice. Many physicians then repeat the test once a year. For labs, “it’s in their financial interest” to label patients with low vitamin D levels, Krist said.

In a 2010 book, “The Vitamin D Solution,” Holick gave readers tips to encourage them to get their blood tested. For readers worried about potential out-of-pocket costs for vitamin D tests — they range from $40 to $225 — Holick listed the precise reimbursement codes that doctors should use when requesting insurance coverage.

“If they use the wrong coding when submitting the claim to the insurance company, they won’t get reimbursed and you will wind up having to pay for the test,” Holick wrote.

Holick acknowledged financial ties with Quest and other companies in the financial disclosure statement published with the Endocrine Society guidelines. In an interview, he said that working for Quest for four decades — he is currently paid $1,000 a month — hasn’t affected his medical advice. “I don’t get any additional money if they sell one test or 1 billion,” Holick said.

A Quest spokeswoman, Wendy Bost, said the company seeks the advice of a number of expert consultants. “We feel strongly that being able to work with the top experts in the field, whether it’s vitamin D or another area, translates to better quality and better information, both for our patients and physicians,” Bost said.

Since 2011, Holick’s advocacy has been embraced by the wellness-industrial complex. Gwyneth Paltrow’s website, Goop, cites his writing. Dr. Mehmet Oz has described vitamin D as “the No. 1 thing you need more of,” telling his audience that it can help them avoid heart disease, depression, weight gain, memory loss and cancer. And Oprah Winfrey’s website tells readers that “knowing your vitamin D levels might save your life.” Mainstream doctors have pushed the hormone, including Dr. Walter Willett, a widely respected professor at Harvard Medical School.

Today, seven years after the dueling academic findings, the leaders of the National Academy report are struggling to be heard above the clamor for more sunshine pills.

“There isn’t a ‘pandemic,’” A. Catharine Ross, a professor at Penn State and chair of the committee that wrote the report, said in an interview. “There isn’t a widespread problem.”

Ties to Drugmakers and Tanning Salons

In “The Vitamin D Solution,” Holick describes his promotion of vitamin D as a lonely crusade. “Drug companies can sell fear,” he writes, “but they can’t sell sunlight, so there’s no promotion of the sun’s health benefits.”

Yet Holick also has extensive financial ties to the pharmaceutical industry. He received nearly $163,000 from 2013 to 2017 from pharmaceutical companies, according to Medicare’s Open Payments database, which tracks payments from drug and device manufacturers. The companies paying him included Sanofi-Aventis, which markets vitamin D supplements; Shire, which makes drugs for hormonal disorders that are given with vitamin D; Amgen, which makes an osteoporosis treatment; and Roche Diagnostics and Quidel Corp., which both make vitamin D tests.

The database includes only payments made since 2013, but Holick’s record of being compensated by drug companies started before that. In his 2010 book, he describes visiting South Africa to give “talks for a pharmaceutical company,” whose president and chief executive were in the audience.

Holick’s ties to the tanning industry also have drawn scrutiny. Although Holick said he doesn’t advocate tanning, he has described tanning beds as a “recommended source” of vitamin D “when used in moderation.”

Holick has acknowledged accepting research money from the UV Foundation — a nonprofit arm of the now-defunct Indoor Tanning Association — which gave $150,000 to Boston University from 2004 to 2006, earmarked for Holick’s research. The International Agency for Research on Cancer classified tanning beds as carcinogenic in 2009.

In 2004, the tanning-industry associations led Dr. Barbara Gilchrest, who then was head of Boston University’s dermatology department, to ask Holick to resign from the department. He did so, but remains a professor at the medical school’s department of endocrinology, diabetes and nutrition and weight management.

In “The Vitamin D Solution,” Holick wrote that he was “forced” to give up his position due to his “stalwart support of sensible sun exposure.” He added, “Shame on me for challenging one of the dogmas of dermatology.”

Although Holick’s website lists him as a member of the American Academy of Dermatology, an academy spokeswoman, Amanda Jacobs, said he was not a current member.

Dr. Christopher McCartney, chairman of the Endocrine Society’s clinical guidelines subcommittee, said the society has put in place stricter policies on conflict of interest since its vitamin D guidelines were released. The society’s current policies would not allow the chairman of the guideline-writing committee to have financial conflicts.

A Miracle Pill Loses Its Luster

Enthusiasm for vitamin D among medical experts has dimmed in recent years, as rigorous clinical trials have failed to confirm the benefits suggested by early, preliminary studies. A string of trials found no evidence that vitamin D reduces the risk of cancer, heart disease or falls in the elderly. And most scientists say there isn’t enough evidence to know if vitamin D can prevent chronic diseases that aren’t related to bones.

Although the amount of vitamin D in a typical daily supplement is generally considered safe, it is possible to take too much. In 2015, an article in the American Journal of Medicine linked blood levels as low as 50 nanograms per milliliter with an increased risk of death.

Some researchers say vitamin D may never have been the miracle pill that it appeared to be. Sick people who stay indoors tend to have low vitamin D levels; their poor health is likely the cause of their low vitamin D levels, not the other way around, said Dr. JoAnn Manson, chief of preventive medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

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Only really rigorous studies, which randomly assign some patients to take vitamin D and others to take placebos, can provide definitive answers about vitamin D and health. Manson is leading one such study, involving 26,000 adults, expected to be published in November.

A number of insurers and health experts have begun to view widespread vitamin D testing as unnecessary and expensive. In 2014, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force said there wasn’t enough evidence to recommend for or against routine vitamin D screening. In April, the task force explicitly recommended that older adults outside of nursing homes avoid taking vitamin D supplements to prevent falls.

In 2015, Excellus BlueCross BlueShield published an analysis highlighting the overuse of vitamin D tests. In 2014, the insurer spent $33 million on 641,000 vitamin D tests. “That’s an astronomical amount of money,” said Dr. Richard Lockwood, Excellus’ vice president and chief medical officer for utilization management. More than 40 percent of Excellus patients tested had no medical reason to be screened.

In spite of Excellus’ efforts to rein in the tests, vitamin D usage has remained high, Lockwood said. “It’s very hard to change habits,” he said, adding: “The medical community is not much different than the rest of the world, and we get into fads.”

Kaiser Health News coverage related to aging and improving care of older adults is supported in part by The John A. Hartford Foundation. KHN is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

Wallowing in Pain

By David Hanscom, MD, PNN Columnist

One of the most powerful ways to bond with others is by sharing emotional or physically painful experiences.  It is common for people suffering from chronic pain to discuss it with their family, friends and colleagues.

Between searching for a cure and talking about it, a fair amount of their consciousness is focused on pain. But the unconscious brain, which pain is a part of, is much more powerful than the conscious brain. You can’t consciously fix or control it. But you can direct it. Your brain changes every second and will develop wherever you place your attention. The more you focus on your pain, the more you will reinforce it.

Many of us in the medical profession were trained to have our pain patients keep a diary of the pain. But it has now been shown in some studies (here and here) that a pain diary is often associated with a delay in recovery. Focusing on the pain and documenting it may only reinforce pain circuits.

One of the most powerful strategies we have seen in treating pain is when we don’t allow patients to discuss their pain with anyone – expect with medical providers. People can become so wrapped up in their pain that they lose themselves in it. They become their pain.

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I had no idea how much time patients spent discussing their pain until I asked them not to. For some, it felt like I had just dumped a bucket of ice water over their head.

They’ll say, “I feel shallow and phony by not sharing what is really going on with me.” That is a sure sign that he or she has become their pain.

We have witnessed several things occur when people successfully stop discussing their pain. The pain may not immediately abate, but they feel lighter.

For starters, do you really think your pain is that interesting to those who aren’t in pain? There is nothing that they can do about it and although they may sympathize, it is incredibly frustrating to repeatedly hear the same story.  Often my patients don’t appreciate the effect their story has on others. People that they enjoyed in the past drift away, furthering their social isolation.

And what about your poor family? They can’t escape as easily. Instead of you being a source of inspiration, peace, love and joy, you bring the whole house down. It isn’t a psychological issue. The effect occurs through mirror neurons, where you are stimulating the negative parts of the brains of those close to you.

Bonding with Pain

Another harmful aspect of repeatedly discussing your pain is that you will bond with those who are also focused on their pain. The bonds are deep and real and stronger than many human connections.

One extreme example of the strength of the need for social interaction involved a patient who we discovered was being violently abused by her boyfriend. We had to call the authorities. But she kept going back to him. One of my staff finally asked her why she put up with being beat up so badly. Her reply was, “It’s the only time that I have his full attention.”

You’ll be almost guaranteed to remain in pain if you are also contributing to another person’s suffering. One of the most basic parts of being human is giving back and that energy is almost impossible to connect to while you are in the abyss of pain. You are taking from those around you and not giving back.

Even deeper though is that the bond forged by pain is so strong that many don’t want to give up their pain. It’s the one greatest obstacle to healing. Being in a victim mode, in any realm, is so powerful that no one willingly wants to let it go. I run across this resistance multiple times per week. It took me many years before I realized that some patients had become addicted to being in pain and were resistant to change. If a patient doesn’t want to even learn the basic concepts behind solving chronic pain, there is nothing that I can do for them.

Our team has attempted to work with several online pain groups, where a lot of energy is spent on complaining about pain, circumstances and medical care. The complaints are generally legitimate, but little time is spent on discussing real alternatives. When we have suggested that there is a viable solution, we are quickly and consistently blocked.

We’ve also asked our patients to never complain or engage in pain behavior, such as groaning, grabbing their back, etc. If you are having a bad day at work or dealing with an unpleasant aspect of your pain, why bring it home? It is supposed to be your haven of safety and relaxation.

Don’t Share Your Pain

We have been surprised how difficult it’s been for some people to quit complaining.  It’s also been surprising how effective this simple strategy has been in moving people forward on their healing journey. At a minimum, their family is happier and everyone’s mood improves. It’s a great start.

Last week I had five different patients become free of pain. All of them had been suffering badly for many years and the change occurred within a couple of months. One person dramatically improved within a couple of weeks. All were beside themselves trying to express how excited and happy they were to be free of pain. Not discussing their pain was a significant step for each of them.

If you are one who feels like that you have to share your pain, then be honest with yourself about not wanting to give it up. It will save you and everyone else a lot of time and money not making the effort to help you heal when you actually don’t want to. Not sharing your pain is a simple beginning and will give you insight on where you are at with regards to healing.

Many people are incensed at the idea that they don’t want to give up their pain. The response is often that the medical profession just isn’t doing its job and fixing them. Whether that is true or not isn’t the point. The key is that you aren’t willing to learn the most recent concepts about overcoming pain. There isn’t any risk and you are already spending a good deal of time searching for an answer.

If you really think you aren’t attached to your suffering, then try this simple test:  Don’t talk about your pain.

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Dr. David Hanscom is a spinal surgeon who has helped hundreds of back pain sufferers by teaching them how to calm their central nervous systems without the use of drugs or surgery. In his book Back in ControlHanscom shares the latest developments in neuroscience research and his own personal history with pain.

More information can be found on his website.

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.

Prescription Pain Creams Flagged for Medicare Fraud

By Julie Appleby, Kaiser Health News

Medicare pays hundreds of millions of dollars each year for prescription creams, gels and lotions made-to-order by pharmacies — mainly as pain treatments. But a new report finds that officials are concerned about possible fraud and patient safety risks from products made at nearly a quarter of the pharmacies that fill the bulk of those prescriptions.

“Although some of this billing may be legitimate, all of these pharmacies warrant further scrutiny,” concludes the report from the Office of the Inspector General for the Department of Health and Human Services.

In total, 547 pharmacies — nearly 23 percent of those that submit most of the bills to Medicare for making these creams — hit one or more of five red-flag markers set by investigators.

Those included what the researchers called “extremely high” prices; large percentages of Medicare members getting identical drugs — 16 of the pharmacies billed for identical drugs for 200 or more customers; “greatly increased” year-over-year billing — 20 pharmacies increased their billing by more than 10,000 percent; or having a single medical provider writing more than 131 prescriptions.

More than half of those pharmacies hit two or more measures — and 10 hit all five.

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One Oregon pharmacy, for example, submitted claims for 91 percent of its customers. A pharmacy in New York submitted 5,342 prescriptions ordered by one podiatrist, while a Florida pharmacy saw its Medicare billing for such treatments go from $7,468 in 2015 to $1.8 million the following year.

Many of the pharmacies are clustered in four cities: Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles and New York.

The report comes amid ongoing concern by Medicare officials about these custom-made — or compounded — drugs. In addition to questions like those raised in the report about overuse and pricing, safety has been a key issue in recent years. A meningitis outbreak in 2012 was linked to a Massachusetts pharmacy that did not maintain sterile conditions and sold tainted made-to-order injections that killed 64 Americans.

When done safely, pharmacy-made compounded drugs provide a legitimate option for patients whose medical needs can’t be met by commercially available products mass-produced by pharmaceutical companies. For example, a patient who can’t swallow a commercially available prescription pill might get a liquid version of a drug.

State boards of pharmacy generally oversee compounding pharmacies, and the drugs they produce are not considered approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

Rising Cost of Compounded Drugs

The new report focuses on concerns with compounded topical medications.

Medicare spending for such treatments has skyrocketed, rising more than 2,350 percent, from $13.2 million in 2010 to $323.5 million in 2016. Price hikes and an increase in the number of prescriptions written drove the increase, the report said.

It is not the first time the inspector general has looked at compounded drugs. A 2016 report found that overall spending on all types of compounded drugs — not just topical medications — rose sharply.

The U.S. Postal Service inspector general and the Department of Defense also have raised concerns about rising spending and possible fraud for compounded drugs.

In response to those previous reports, the International Academy of Compounding Pharmacists, the industry’s trade group, has said that legitimately compounded drugs “can dramatically improve a patient’s quality of life,” noting that proper billing controls need to be in place. The inspector general’s report in 2016, it added, found that “such controls are not in place.”

This report, which the compounding trade group has not yet reviewed, focuses on topical drugs and a subset of the 15,290 pharmacies that provide at least one such prescription each year. It looked at billing records from the 2,388 pharmacies that do at least 10 such prescriptions a year — providing 93 percent of all compounded topical drugs paid for by Medicare.

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Most of the prescriptions were for pain treatment, made from ingredients such as lidocaine, an anesthetic, or diclofenac sodium, an anti-inflammatory drug.

On average, those compounds were more expensive than non-compounded drugs with the same ingredients.

For example, Medicare paid an average of $751 per tube of compounded lidocaine, and $1,506 for the diclofenac, according to the inspector general’s report. Non-compounded tubes of those drugs averaged $445 and $128, respectively.

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb recently outlined new efforts his agency is taking to oversee compounded drugs in the wake of legislation passed by Congress following the meningitis outbreak.

“The FDA is inspecting compounding facilities to assess whether drugs that are essentially copies of FDA-approved drugs are being compounded for patients” who could otherwise take a product sold commercially, he said in a statement issued on June 28.

Gottlieb also said the FDA plans to make more information available to patients and their doctors about compounded topical pain creams, including information about their effectiveness and any potential safety risks.

Not being effective is a safety risk, noted Miriam Anderson, a researcher with the inspector general’s office who helped write the report.

The report urged the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to clarify some of its policies to emphasize that insurers can limit the use of compounded drugs by requiring prior authorization or other steps. The agency concurred with the recommendations, according to the report, including the need to “follow up on pharmacies with questionable Part D billing and the prescribers associated with these pharmacies.”

Anderson said the inspector general’s office is continuing to probe the issue.

“We will investigate a number of leads on specific pharmacies and prescribers who were identified as having these questionable patterns,” she said. “Whenever we see that kind of increase in spending, it raises concern about fraud, waste and abuse.”

Kaiser Health News’ coverage of prescription drug development, costs and pricing is supported in part by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.

Kaiser Health News, a nonprofit health newsroom whose stories appear in news outlets nationwide, is an editorially independent part of the Kaiser Family Foundation.