1 in 5 Multiple Sclerosis Patients Misdiagnosed

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Nearly one in five patients who are told they have multiple sclerosis are misdiagnosed with the autoimmune disease, according to a new study of patients referred to two MS treatment centers in Los Angeles. The patients spent an average of four years being treated for MS before receiving a correct diagnosis.

MS is a chronic disease that attacks the body’s central nervous system, causing pain, numbness, difficulty walking, paralysis, loss of vision, and fatigue. The symptoms are similar to those of several other chronic conditions – including neuropathy, migraine and fibromyalgia – which often leads to a misdiagnosis.

Researchers at the Cedars-Sinai Multiple Sclerosis and Neuroimmunology Center analyzed the cases of 241 patients who had been diagnosed by other physicians and then referred to the Cedars-Sinai or UCLA MS clinics.

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Their findings, published in the journal Multiple Sclerosis and Related Disorders, indicate that 43 of the 241 patients (18%) with a previous diagnosis of MS did not meet the criteria for the disease.

"The diagnosis of MS is tricky. Both the symptoms and MRI testing results can look like other conditions, such as stroke, migraines and vitamin B12 deficiency," said lead author Marwa Kaisey, MD. "You have to rule out any other diagnoses, and it's not a perfect science."

The most common correct diagnoses was migraine (16%), radiologically isolated syndrome (RIS) (9%), spondylopathy (7%), and neuropathy (7%). RIS is a condition in which patients do not experience symptoms of MS even though their imaging tests look similar to those of MS patients.

The misdiagnosed patients received approximately 110 patient-years of unnecessary MS disease modifying drugs. Nearly half received medications that carry a known risk of developing progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy, a potentially fatal brain infection.

"I've seen patients suffering side effects from the medication they were taking for a disease they didn't have," Kaisey said. "Meanwhile, they weren't getting treatment for what they did have. The cost to the patient is huge — medically, psychologically, financially."

The cost of disease modifying medications for an MS patient in the U.S. exceeds $50,000 a year. Investigators estimated that the unnecessary treatments identified in this study alone cost almost $10 million. 

Researchers hope the results of the study will lead to new biomarkers and improved imaging techniques to help prevent future MS misdiagnoses.

A similar study in 2016 also found that MS patients were often misdiagnosed. One third of the patients were misdiagnosed for a decade or longer, most took unnecessary and potentially harmful medication to treat a disease they didn't have, and some even participated in clinical trials for experimental MS therapies. About a third suffered from morbid thoughts of death.

Men Needed for Fibromyalgia Vaccine Study

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

The start of a potentially groundbreaking study of a vaccine to treat fibromyalgia has been delayed because not enough men have volunteered to participate.

Massachusetts General Hospital and EpicGenetics – a Los Angeles-based  biomedical company  – received FDA approval last year to enroll 300 fibromyalgia patients in a placebo controlled Phase 2 study to see if the bacillus Calmette-Guérin (BCG) vaccine can be an effective treatment for fibromyalgia. Volunteers must first test positive for fibromyalgia after taking a diagnostic blood test developed by EpicGenetics.  

Half the volunteers will receive injections of the BCG vaccine every 12 months, while the other half will receive placebo injections. The 3-year study was initially projected to begin January first, but has yet to get underway.

“One of the problems we’re having is that the vast majority of the people who have taken the blood test are women aged 50 and above,” said Bruce Gillis, MD, the CEO and founder of EpicGenetics. “We really need more diversity. So we are pushing hard to find more men and more younger people to test.

“We’re still hoping to start this year. But we’re hoping for more diversity in the patients.”

Fibromyalgia is a poorly understood disorder that causes widespread body pain, fatigue, insomnia, headaches and mood swings. The cause is unknown, there is no cure and the symptoms are difficult to manage. Between 75 and 90 percent of the people who have fibromyalgia are women.

The BCG vaccine has been used for over 80 years to prevent tuberculosis and meningitis in children. Gillis believes the same vaccine can be used in adults to stimulate the immune system and reverse symptoms of fibromyalgia.

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“When BCG has been administered in other chronic illnesses, it has triggered the immune system’s stem cells to change their behavior. And in our case, we believe that should allow for the production of healthier peripheral blood mono-nuclear cells -- the white blood cells that we find to be impacted in fibromyalgia,” Gillis told PNN.

“The expectation is that when the patient receives the BCG there is a stimulus to change stem cells and white blood cell production to produce healthier cells.  And as a consequence, their fibromyalgia should be reversible.”

EpicGenetics’ FM/a blood test for fibromyalgia was first introduced in 2012 and is now covered by Medicare and most insurance companies. The cash cost for patients without insurance is $1,080. If the BCG vaccine proves effective, Gillis says the vaccine will be provided at no cost to patients who test positive for fibromyalgia.

Anyone interested in participating in the study at Massachusetts General Hospital should send an email to fmtest@epicgtx.com.

“We need patients from age 18 to 80 plus. And we need more men. I don’t think I’ll ever get an equivalent number of men as I will women, but I need more than just a handful of men,” says Gillis.

Study: Alcohol Relieves Fibromyalgia Pain

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Another study is adding to a growing body of evidence that alcohol is an effective – yet risky – way to treat chronic pain.

Researchers at the University of Michigan surveyed over 2,500 patients being treated at a university pain clinic about their drinking habits, pain severity and physical function. Participants were also assessed for signs of depression and anxiety. About a third of the patients were diagnosed with fibromyalgia (FM), a poorly understood disorder characterized by widespread body pain, fatigue, insomnia, headaches and mood swings.

Researchers, who recently published their study in the journal Pain Medicine, found that patients who were moderate drinkers had less pain and other symptoms than those who did not drink alcohol.

“Female and male chronic pain patients who drink no more than 7 and 14 alcoholic drinks per week, respectively, reported significantly lower FM symptoms, pain severity, pain-related interference in activities, depression, anxiety and catastrophizing, and higher physical function,” said lead author Ryan Scott, MPH, of UM’s Chronic Pain and Fatigue Research Center.

“These findings suggest that chronic pain patients with a lesser degree of pain centralization may benefit most from low-risk, moderate alcohol consumption.”

According to the Mayo Clinic, moderate alcohol consumption for healthy adults means up to one drink a day for women of all ages and men older than age 65, and up to two drinks a day for men age 65 and younger.

Of the study participants, over half reported use of opioid medication, which carries serious risks when combined with alcohol. Perhaps for that reason, participants in the UM study drank less alcohol than the general population.

“People with chronic pain may drink less due to the stigma and because they are being told not to drink while on pain medication,” says Scott.

Moderate drinkers with chronic pain were more likely to be white, have an advanced degree and were less likely to use opioids. They reported less pain, lower anxiety and depression, and higher physical function.

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Researchers found that fibromyalgia patients who drank moderately reported decreased pain severity and depression, but alcohol had no effect on how widespread their pain was or other symptoms such as cramps, headache, fatigue, poor sleep and cognitive dysfunction.

Scott believes alcohol may stimulate the production of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter in the central nervous system that reduces nerve activity. Alcohol and drugs such as gabapentin (Neurontin) that act on GABA typically have relaxing effects.

“Alcohol increases gamma-aminobutyric acid in the brain, which is why we could be seeing some of the psychiatric effects. Even though alcohol helped some fibromyalgia patients, it didn’t have the same level of effect,” said Scott. “You probably need much more GABA to block pain signals and that may be why we’re not seeing as high an effect in these patients.”

Over a dozen previous studies have also found that alcohol is an effective pain reliever. In a 2017 review published in the Journal of Pain, British researchers found “robust evidence” that alcohol acts as an analgesic.

“It could be a stepping stone to increased quality of life, leading to more social interactions,” says Scott. “Fibromyalgia patients in particular have a lot of psychological trauma, anxiety and catastrophizing, and allowing for the occasional drink might increase social habits and overall health.”

Ambroxol: A Potential New Treatment for Chronic Pain

By A Rahman Ford, PNN Columnist

Researchers say a drug long used in cough syrup and cold medicines shows potential for treating some types of neuropathic pain.

A small study recently published in the journal Headache found that topical administration of ambroxol in a cream could significantly decrease pain in patients with trigeminal neuralgia, a chronic facial condition that can make even routine tasks such as brushing one’s teeth excruciatingly painful. 

In their review of the medical records of five trigeminal neuralgia patients, German researchers reported that all five patients experienced pain reduction with ambroxol 20% cream being applied within 30 minutes of a pain flare, with pain relief lasting from 4 to 6 hours.  In one case, pain was eliminated completely in one week.  

The results were similar to those of previous German studies and were so significant that researchers recommended that ambroxol “should be investigated further as a matter of urgency.”

Similarly, a recent study in the journal Pain Management found that application of topical ambroxol reduced spontaneous pain in several patients with complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS), a little understood nerve condition that causes chronic pain after a significant injury or surgery.  Notably, ambroxol therapy improved several other neuropathy-related conditions in CRPS patients, including edema, allodynia, hyperalgesia, skin reddening, motor dysfunction and skin temperature.

An Old Drug with a New Purpose

With a pharmacological history that can be traced back to Indian ayurvedic medicine, ambroxol was initially approved in 1978 as a medication to break down mucus and make it easier to eliminate by coughing.  It is generally administered in tablet or syrup form. 

Ambroxol is also used to treat a sore throat associated with pharyngitis, thus its potential role as a potent local anesthetic.  The drug’s anesthetic properties stem from its ability to block sodium and calcium channels that transmit pain signals.

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Although the idea that ambroxol can treat a sore throat is widely accepted, its application to other forms of pain is more recent.  

Previous studies using animal models of neuropathic pain have been promising.  In a 2005 study, researchers effectively reduced – and in some cases eliminated – chronic neuropathic and inflammatory pain in rats. Indian researchers also found ambroxol effective in treating neuropathic pain in rats, attributing its success to its antioxidative and anti-inflammatory properties.  Unfortunately, human studies are few at this point.

Ambroxol and Fibromyalgia

A 2017 Clinical Rheumatology study showed that ambroxol can play a key role in treating chronic pain associated with fibromyalgia.  As reported by Fibromyalgia News Today, researchers from Mexico added ambroxol to the treatment regimens of 25 fibromyalgia patients, three times a day for one month.  At the end of the study, pain scores decreased significantly and there was also noticeable improvement in sleep disturbances, stiffness and autonomic nervous system dysfunction.  No major adverse events were reported. 

Another 2017 study supported these findings, with the authors concluding that “fibromyalgia treatment with ambroxol should be systematically investigated” because the drug “is the only treatment option used thus far that has the potential to address not just individual but all of the aforementioned aspects of pain.”

Although data on its effectiveness in humans are limited, ambroxol shows great potential in treating painful conditions for which there are currently few safe and effective options.  It is particularly attractive because it has few significant side effects, is not addictive and can be administered topically in some instances.

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A. Rahman Ford, PhD, is a lawyer and research professional. He is a graduate of Rutgers University and the Howard University School of Law, where he served as Editor-in-Chief of the Howard Law Journal. He earned his PhD at the University of Pennsylvania.

Rahman lives with chronic inflammation in his digestive tract and is unable to eat solid food.

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.

Study Finds Naltrexone Has No Serious Side Effects

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

A generic drug increasingly used off-label to treat fibromyalgia and other chronic pain conditions is safe to use and more clinical studies are needed on its potential uses, according to British researchers.

Naltrexone is primarily used to treat alcoholism and opioid addiction, but many patients have discovered that low doses of naltrexone (LDN) are effective in relieving pain and other symptoms.

Many doctors won’t prescribe naltrexone, often citing liver toxicity as a reason. But when researchers at The University of Manchester reviewed 89 placebo-controlled studies of naltrexone involving over 11,000 patients, they found no evidence of any serious side effects.

"Though naltrexone is licensed for the treatment of alcohol addiction, it remains underutilized,” says lead author Monica Bolton, PhD, who reported her findings in the journal BMC Medicine. "And that has devastating consequences for individuals, health and social services in the UK and around the world.

"It is cost effective and could reduce deaths."

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“Our review also shows that fears over side-effects are unfounded," said co-author Alex Hodkinson, Phd. "Like all drugs for alcohol addiction, the chaotic nature of being an addict means this drug is simply not prescribed as much as it should be,”

Naltrexone does cause minor side effects in some patients, such as nausea and dizziness, and because it is an opioid antagonist the drug should not be taken with opioid medication.

The fact that naltrexone is generic and inexpensive is one reason the drug is not more widely prescribed. There is little incentive for pharmaceutical companies to market naltrexone or to conduct expensive clinical trials to prove its effectiveness in treating pain.

"As it is safe, cheap and long out of patent, naltrexone would seem an excellent candidate for repurposing for a whole range of conditions,” says Bolton. "That is why it is imperative to find ways to fund clinical trials to test if it might one day be possible to license it.

"The problem is, it is extremely difficult to repurpose existing drugs - and naltrexone is just one example of many wasted opportunities to treat people and save the NHS money."

Of the 89 naltrexone trials included in the Manchester University study, only 3 dealt with chronic pain conditions.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that at very low doses of 5 mg or less, naltrexone may be able to treat a range of immune-modulated conditions including Crohn's disease, HIV, multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS).

In a PNN guest column, Marelle Reid shared her experience using LDN to treat Interstitial Cystitis, while Janice Hollander said LDN “completely changed my life” when she started taking it for fibromyalgia.

Patients interested in trying LDN often encounter doctors who refuse to prescribe it. The LDN Research Trust includes a list of LDN-friendly doctors and pharmacies on its website.

 

Chronic Fatigue Patients Often Feel Disbelieved in ERs

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Patients suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) often feel disrespected and disbelieved in hospital emergency rooms, according to a new survey by researchers at Georgetown University Medical Center.

CFS is a complex and poorly understood disorder characterized by extreme fatigue, chronic pain, impaired memory and insomnia. Because many of the symptoms of CFS overlap with other conditions -- including fibromyalgia, depression, and inflammation – a correct diagnosis is often difficult.

In the first study of its kind, Georgetown researchers surveyed 282 CFS patients about their experiences in emergency departments. Two-thirds said they would not go to an ED because they believed they wouldn't be taken seriously or because they had a previous unsatisfactory experience. Only a third said they received appropriate treatment in the ED.

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"The high proportion of patients who were basically told 'It is all in your head' by ED staff indicates that there is much misunderstanding and misgivings about the diagnosis of CFS,” said allergist and immunologist James Baraniuk, MD, senior investigator of the study published in the journal Open Access Emergency Medicine.

“These patients should feel they are respected and that they can receive thorough care when they feel sick enough to go to an ED."

The survey found that only 59 percent of the CFS patients had gone to an ED. In that group, 42 percent were dismissed as having psychosomatic complaints. Asked to collectively rate their ED caregivers' knowledge of chronic fatigue, patients gave them a score of 3.6 on a 10-point scale.

Baraniuk says more training is needed for ED staff and physicians to better understand the disorder.

"An already-available CFS Symptom Severity Questionnaire can be used in the ED to assist with the diagnosis of CFS, and to differentiate exacerbations of CFS symptoms from medical emergencies such as heart attacks or infections," Baraniuk says.

The number one reason for going to the ED was orthostatic intolerance, which occurs when a person feels faint when standing or sitting upright because not enough blood is reaching the brain and heart. The symptoms only improve when a person lies down.

"This condition is something that can be readily addressed by ED caregivers. There is a real need for physician education that will improve their efficiency in identifying and treating CFS and in distinguishing CFS symptoms from other diseases in the exam room," he said.

In 2015, an independent panel convened by the National Institutes of Health called for major changes in the way the healthcare system treats people suffering from chronic fatigue – which is also known as Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS).

“Both society and the medical profession have contributed to ME/CFS patients feeling disrespected and rejected. They are often treated with skepticism, uncertainty, and apprehension and labeled as deconditioned or having a primary psychological disorder,” the panel reported in its final report.

About one million Americans suffer from chronic fatigue, most of them women. There are no pathogens linked to CFS, no diagnostic tests and no known cures.

Can Gabapentin Improve Your Sex Life?

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Over the years the nerve drug gabapentin (Neurontin) has been used to treat a cornucopia of chronic pain conditions, from fibromyalgia and diabetic neuropathy to hot flashes and shingles.

Gabapentin is so widely prescribed that a Pfizer executive once called the drug “the snake oil of the twentieth century” because researchers found it successful in treating just about everything they studied.

Add sexual function to the list.

In a small study, researchers at Rutgers University found that gabapentin improved sexual desire, arousal and satisfaction in 89 women with provoked vulvodynia, a chronic condition characterized by stinging, burning and itching at the entry to the vagina. Vulvar pain often occurs during intercourse, which leads to loss of interest in sex.

The improvements in desire, arousal and sexual satisfaction were small, but considered “statistically significant” in research parlance. Gabapentin did not improve lubrication or orgasm.

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"Our theory was that reducing pelvic floor muscle pain might reduce vulvodynia pain overall and thus improve sexual function," said Gloria Bachmann, MD, director of the Women's Health Institute at Rutgers and lead author of the study published in the Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

"We found that women with greater muscle pain responded better in terms of pain and improved arousal than those with less pain, which suggests that Gabapentin be considered for treatment in women who have significant muscle tightness and spasm in the pelvic region.”

Does this mean gabapentin is a female version of Viagra? Not necessarily, says Bachmann, who stressed that the study only focused on women with vulvodynia.

“We didn't research the question of gabapentin enhancing sexual function in all women,” Bachmann wrote in an email to PNN. “The decision to give gabapentin to a woman who reports chronic vulvar pain and sexual dysfunction would have to be made on an individual basis, depending on her medical history and the results of her physical and pelvic examination.

“From the data, it appears that women with increased muscle tenderness of the pelvic floor may be the group who benefit most from gabapentin.”

Sales of gabapentin have soared in recent years — not because it improves sexual satisfaction — but because it is seen as a safer pain reliever than opioid medication.

Patients prescribed gabapentin often complain of side effects such as mood swings, depression, dizziness, fatigue and drowsiness.  Drug abusers have also discovered that gabapentin can heighten the effects of heroin, cocaine and other illicit substances, and it is increasingly being abused.

New Lyme Disease Test Could Lead to Earlier Treatment

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

At long last, scientists are close to developing a new test to detect Lyme disease weeks sooner than current tests -- allowing patients to begin treatment earlier.

Lyme disease is a bacterial illness spread by ticks. Left untreated, it can lead to chronic conditions such as joint and back pain, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia and neuropathy.

Borrelia burgdorferi was first identified as the bacteria that causes Lyme disease in 1983.  The antibody tests currently used to detect Borrelia were developed a decade later and have a number of shortcomings. They can take up to three weeks to get results and cannot distinguish between an active infection or an old one.

A team of scientists recently reported in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases that advances in molecular diagnostics should make a new DNA test for Borrelia technically feasible.

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“These direct tests are needed because you can get Lyme disease more than once, features are often non-diagnostic and the current standard FDA-approved tests cannot distinguish an active, ongoing infection from a past cured one,” said lead author Steven Schutzer, MD, a physician-scientist at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School.

“The problem is worsening because Lyme disease has increased in numbers to 300,000 per year in the United States and is spreading across the country and world.”

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Early symptoms of Lyme disease include fever, chills, headaches, fatigue, muscle and joint aches, and swollen lymph nodes. A delayed rash often appears at the site of the tick bite, which resembles a ring or bulls-eye. When there is no rash, a reliable laboratory test is needed to detect an active disease.

“The new tests that directly detect the Lyme agent’s DNA are more exact and are not susceptible to the same false-positive results and uncertainties associated with current FDA-approved indirect tests,” said Schutzer.

Lyme disease is usually treated with antibiotics, but some patients experience complications that lead to Lyme disease syndrome (PTLDS), with long-term symptoms such as fatigue, muscle and joint pain and cognitive issues. Autoimmune diseases have also been associated with chronic Lyme disease.

Lyrica Not Effective for Treating Traumatic Nerve Pain

By Pat Anson, Editor

Pregabalin is not effective in relieving chronic pain caused by traumatic nerve injury, but it may be useful as an analgesic in treating pain after surgery, according to a new study published in the Journal of Neurology.

The placebo-controlled study followed 539 patients in North America, Europe, Africa and Asia for three months. About half had nerve pain after surgery, while the rest had nerve pain after an accident or trauma.

Researchers found that pregabalin was not an effective pain reliever for the patients with traumatic nerve injuries, but the drug did provide better pain relief than placebo for the surgery patients.

"While these finding show that pregabalin is not effective in controlling the long-term pain for traumatic injury, it may provide relief for patients (that) experience post-surgical pain," said lead author John Markman, MD, director of the Translational Pain Research Program in the University of Rochester Department of Neurosurgery.

"The possibility that there was pain relief for those patients who had a hernia repair, or breast surgery for cancer, or a joint replacement lays the groundwork for future studies in these post-surgical syndromes where there is so much need for non-opioid treatments."

Pregabalin, which is sold by Pfizer under the brand name Lyrica, is FDA-approved for the treatment of chronic pain associated with shingles, spinal cord injury, fibromyalgia, and diabetic peripheral neuropathy.

It is also commonly prescribed as an "off label" treatment for other types of chronic pain and as an alternative to opioid medication.

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A major challenge for doctors is that biological changes in nerves and other tissues while healing from surgery or trauma vary from one patient to the next. There is also no diagnostic method that allows doctors to identify which patients will respond to a particular type of pain treatment.

"Given the rising rates of surgery and shrinking reliance on opioids, it is critical that we understand how to study new drugs that work differently in patients like the ones included in this study," Markman added.

While critics often say there is little or no evidence to support the long-term use of opioids, the same is true for other types of pain medication, including pregabalin. Nevertheless, in its guideline for opioids, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends pregabalin and its chemical cousin gabapentin as alternatives for treating chronic pain – without even mentioning their side effects or potential for abuse.

Pregabalin and gabapentin belong to a class of nerve medication called gabapentinoids, which were originally developed to treat epilepsy, not pain. In recent, deaths involving gabapentinoids have increased in the UK, Australia and Canada, where some addicts have learned the drugs can heighten the euphoric effect of heroin and other opioids.

The use of pregabalin and gabapentin has tripled in the U.S. over the past decade, but health officials have only recently started looking into their misuse and abuse. While gabapentin has a warning label cautioning users who take the drug with opioids, there is no similar warning for pregabalin.

Fibromyalgia and the High Risk of Suicide

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Studies have shown that fibromyalgia patients are 10 times more likely to die by suicide than the general population, and about three times more likely than other chronic pain patients.

What can be done to reduce that alarmingly high risk?

One possible solution is for fibromyalgia patients to visit a doctor more often, according to a new study published in the journal Arthritis Care & Research.

Researchers at Vanderbilt University Medical Center analyzed health data for nearly 8,900 fibromyalgia patients, finding 34 known suicide attempts and 96 documented cases of suicidal thoughts – also known as suicide ideation. Then they looked at how often the patients saw a doctor.

On average, patients who had suicidal thoughts spent 1.7 hours seeing a doctor per year, while those who did not have suicide ideation visited a doctor an average of 5.9 hours per year.

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The difference was even more substantial for those who tried to commit suicide. Fibromyalgia patients who attempted suicide saw a doctor for less than an hour a year, compared to over 50 hours per year for those who did not try to kill themselves.

“Fifty hours versus one hour – that’s a staggering difference,” said lead author Lindsey McKernan, PhD, a professor of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. “They might have been at one appointment in a year and this disorder, fibromyalgia, takes a lot to manage. It takes a lot of engagement.”

Fibromyalgia is characterized by deep tissue pain, fatigue, depression, insomnia and mood swings. Because fibromyalgia is difficult to diagnose and treat, there is a fair amount of stigma associated with it and patients often feel like they are not believed or taken seriously by their family, friends and doctors.

Self-isolation could be one reason fibromyalgia patients don’t visit a physician as often as they should.

“If you really break it down the people who were having suicidal thoughts weren’t going into the doctor as much. I think about the people who might be falling through the cracks. Chronic pain in and of itself is very isolating over time,” said McKernan.

“Perhaps we can connect those individuals to an outpatient provider, or providers, to improve their care and reduce their suicide risk. We also might see patients at-risk establish meaningful relationships with providers whom they can contact in times of crisis,” said senior author Colin Walsh, MD, a professor of Biomedical Informatics at Vanderbilt.

In addition to seeing a primary care provider or rheumatologist, researchers say fibromyalgia patients should be getting regular exercise and physical therapy, and working with a psychologist or mental health provider.

“We looked at thousands of people in this study and not one who received mental health services of some kind went on to attempt suicide,” McKernan said.

“Often, when you are hurting, your body tells you to stay in bed. Moving is the last thing that you want to do. And when you are tired, when your mood is low, when your body aches, you don’t want to see anybody, but that is exactly what you need to do — contact your doctors, stay in touch with them, and move. It really can make a difference.”

Lady Gaga: ‘Chronic Pain Is No Joke’

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

One of the few celebrities brave enough to speak openly about their battle with chronic pain is talking about it again – in a fashion magazine.

"Chronic pain is no joke. And it's every day waking up not knowing how you're going to feel," Lada Gaga told Vogue in a cover story.

Last year, Lady Gaga revealed that she suffers from fibromyalgia, a poorly understood disorder characterized by deep tissue pain, fatigue, depression and insomnia.

A pain flare up forced her to cancel several concert appearances, which led some skeptics to complain that it was a publicity stunt to promote “Gaga: Five Foot Two,” a Netflix documentary that shows the singer being treated for chronic pain.

Lady Gaga says her fibromyalgia is very real – along with the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) she has from being sexually assaulted as a teenager.

"I get so irritated with people who don't believe fibromyalgia is real," she told Vogue. "For me, and I think for many others, it's really a cyclone of anxiety, depression, PTSD, trauma, and panic disorder - all of which sends the nervous system into overdrive, and then you have nerve pain as a result.

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“You know that feeling when you’re on a roller coaster and you’re just about to go down the really steep slope? That fear and the drop in your stomach? My diaphragm seizes up. Then I have a hard time breathing, and my whole body goes into a spasm. And I begin to cry. That’s what it feels like for trauma victims every day, and it’s… miserable. I always say that trauma has a brain. And it works its way into everything that you do.”

The 32-year old singer said it took years for her to open up about the sexual assault.

“No one else knew. It was almost like I tried to erase it from my brain. And when it finally came out, it was like a big, ugly monster. And you have to face the monster to heal,” she said. “I felt like I was lying to the world because I was feeling so much pain but nobody knew. So that’s why I came out and said that I have PTSD, because I don’t want to hide — any more than I already have to.”

In addition to fibromyalgia and PTSD, Lady Gaga also lives with synovitis, a chronic inflammation in her hip caused by overuse and injury.  Like many pain sufferers, the singer has tried a variety of different treatments to ease her discomfort – from massage to hot saunas to Epsom salt baths. In 2016, she posted on Instagram an image of herself sitting in a sauna wrapped in an emergency blanket.

Lady Gaga’s battle with chronic pain is only a small part of her interview with Vogue. She’s helping to promote A Star is Born – her new film with Brad Cooper that premiers next month.

Studies Warn of Pregabalin Deaths

By Pat Anson, Editor

Two new studies – one in Canada and one in Australia – should give pause to patients who use opioids and pregabalin (Lyrica), an anticonvulsant medication increasingly prescribed for fibromyalgia, neuropathy and other chronic pain conditions. Both studies found a number of overdose deaths that involve – but were not necessarily caused -- by pregabalin.

The Canadian study, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, looked at over 1,400 patients in Ontario on opioid medication from 1997 to 2016 who died from opioid-related causes. Another group of over 5,000 surviving opioid patients was used as a control group.

Researchers found that patients who were co-prescribed opioids and pregabalin had a significantly higher risk of an overdose.

The risk of death was over two times higher for patients receiving opioids and a high dose of pregabalin (over 300mg) compared to those who took opioids alone.

Patients on a low or moderate dose of pregabalin also had a heightened risk, although not as large.

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Researchers say pregabalin has a sedative effect and may interact with opioids in ways that increase respiratory depression. Few doctors and patients are aware of the risk, even though over half of Ontario residents who begin pregabalin therapy are also prescribed an opioid.

"There is an important drug interaction between opioids and pregabalin that can lead to increased risk of fatal overdose, particularly at high doses of pregabalin," lead author Tara Gomes, PhD, of the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences (ICES) and St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto, told MedPage Today.

"Clinicians should consider carefully whether to prescribe opioids and pregabalin together. If they decide that both medications are clinically appropriate, they should start with low doses and monitor their patients closely."

Lyrica (pregabalin) and Neurontin (gabapentin) are both made by Pfizer and belong to a class of anticonvulsant nerve medication called gabapentinoids. Sales of gabapentinoids have tripled in recent years, in part because of CDC prescribing guidelines that recommend the drugs as alternatives to opioid medication.  

U.S. health officials have only recently started looking into the misuse and abuse of gabapentinoids, which are increasingly used by addicts to enhance the euphoric effects of heroin and other illicit opioids. While gabapentin  has a warning label cautioning users who take the drug with opioids, there is no similar warning for pregabalin.

“Although current product monographs for gabapentin contain warnings about serious adverse events when this agent is combined with opioids, those for pregabalin do not. The importance of our finding warrants a revision of the pregabalin product monographs,” wrote Gomes.

Pregabalin Abuse in Australia

Health officials in Australia are also concerned about the growing use of pregabalin.  Researchers at the NSW Poisons Information Centre say poisoning cases involving pregabalin rose from zero in 2005 to 376 cases in 2016.

“Our study shows a clear correlation between the rapid and continuous rise of pregabalin dispensing and an increase in intentional poisonings and deaths associated with pregabalin,” said lead author Dr. Rose Cairns, a specialist at the NSW Poisons Information Centre.

According to the Australian Journal of Pharmacy (AJP), there have been 88 recorded deaths associated with pregabalin in recent years. Most of the deaths involved young, unemployed males who had a history of substance abuse, particularly with opioids, benzodiazepines, alcohol and illicit drugs.

“We believe that Australian doctors may not be aware of the abuse potential of pregabalin,” Cairns said. “Most patients who are prescribed this medication are in the older population but the group who are at high risk of overdosing are much younger. These people are likely to have been prescribed pregabalin despite having a history of substance abuse.”

According to researchers, up to two-thirds of people who intentionally misused pregabalin had a prior documented substance abuse history. “Prescribers need to consider this growing body of evidence that pregabalin has abuse potential before prescribing, especially to patients with substance abuse history,” said Cairns.

Pfizer did not respond to a request for comment on the Canadian and Australian studies.

Growing Abuse of Gabapentin

By Christine Vestal, Stateline

Doctors who are cutting back on prescribing opioids increasingly are opting for gabapentin, a safer, non-narcotic drug recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

By doing so, they may be putting their opioid-using patients at even greater risk.

Recently, gabapentin has started showing up in a substantial number of overdose deaths in hard-hit Appalachian states. The neuropathic (nerve-related) pain reliever was involved in more than a third of Kentucky overdose deaths last year.

Drug users say gabapentin pills, known as “johnnies” or “gabbies,” which often sell for less than a dollar each, enhance the euphoric effects of heroin and when taken alone in high doses can produce a marijuana-like high.

Medical researchers stress that more study is needed to determine the role gabapentin may have played in recent overdose deaths. However, a study of heroin users in England and Wales published last fall concluded that combining opioids and gabapentin “potentially increases the risk of acute overdose death” by hampering breathing and reversing users’ tolerance to heroin and other powerful opioids.

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Kentucky last year classified gabapentin as a controlled substance, making it harder for doctors to prescribe it in copious quantities and for long durations. The new classification also allows police to arrest anyone who illicitly sells the drug, although the state’s drug control chief, Van Ingram, said that was not the intent of the new law.

In the last two years, Illinois, Ohio, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Tennessee, Virginia and Wyoming also have moved to control the flow of gabapentin by requiring doctors and pharmacists to check a prescription drug database before prescribing it to patients to make sure they aren’t already receiving gabapentin, or some other medication that interacts with it, from another physician.

In a statement to Stateline, Pfizer communications director Steven Danehy said, “Reports of misuse and abuse with this class of medicines are limited and typically involve patients with a prior history of substance abuse, including opioids.”

The drugmaker also pledged to “continue working with regulatory authorities and health officials to evaluate and monitor the safety of these medicines.”

Prescribed for Many Conditions

Approved by the FDA in 1993 for the treatment of epilepsy and the nerve pain associated with shingles, gabapentin is sold by Pfizer under the brand name Neurontin. A generic form of the drug has been available since 2004 and is now sold by several other companies as well.

Gabapentin is now one of the most popular prescription drugs in the United States, according to the New England Journal of Medicine. It was the 10th-most-prescribed medication in 2016. Its more expensive cousin, pregabalin, sold as Lyrica and also made by Pfizer, was the eighth best-selling.

Many doctors recommend gabapentin to patients for a long list of disorders, including hot flashes, migraines, restless leg syndrome, fibromyalgia, and neuropathic pain associated with diabetes and spinal injuries. Some doctors also prescribe it for anxiety and insomnia.

Now, research is underway to determine whether gabapentin may be effective as a treatment for alcoholism.

Already, it is widely used to ease the symptoms of drug and alcohol detoxification. And addiction specialists routinely use gabapentin to manage pain in people who are either addicted or at risk of addiction to opioids and other substances.

Alone, high doses of gabapentin have not been found to affect breathing. The vast majority of gabapentin deaths, about 4 in 5, also involved opioids, according to the journal Addiction.

People who stop taking the medication abruptly, however, can suffer withdrawal symptoms such as trembling, sweats and agitation.

In February, Food and Drug Administration director Scott Gottlieb said the agency was reviewing the misuse of gabapentin and, for now, had determined no action was necessary. Similarly, the CDC has not issued a warning about gabapentin, nor has the Drug Enforcement Administration.

(Editor's note: the CDC opioid guidelines recommend gabapentin without any mention of the risk of abuse or overdose associated with the drug, or of possible side effects such as weight gain, anxiety and mood disorders.)

Early Signs of Abuse

In Kentucky, Ingram said it has been clear to police and pharmacists for the last three or four years that gabapentin was becoming an increasingly popular street drug. “People were seeking early refills, claiming they lost their prescriptions and openly conducting transactions in parking lots outside of drug stores,” he said.

But since it wasn’t a controlled substance, nothing was done about it. That’s likely to start changing with the new law, he said.

“Misuse of gabapentin is just one more collateral effect of the opioid epidemic,” said Caleb Alexander, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University who has been studying the heroin and prescription drug epidemic. When one drug becomes less available, drug users historically seek out alternatives, he said. “What is most surprising is the sheer magnitude of its use.”

The share of Appalachian drug users who reported using gabapentin to get high increased nearly 30-fold from 2008 to 2014, according to a 2015 study in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

Paul Earley, an addiction doctor practicing in Georgia and a board member of the American Society of Addiction Medicine, said, “We knew that a small subset of our addiction patients would abuse gabapentin.” But he said it wasn’t until 2016, when Ohio sounded an alarm about the drug’s association with overdose deaths, that addiction doctors started taking the problem more seriously.

“For years, we considered gabapentin to be ‘good for what ails you,’” Earley said. “But I’m much more cautious than I used to be. If there’s anything we’ve learned from the opioid epidemic, it’s that we need to rethink how we prescribe drugs we once assumed were safe.”

This is story is republished with permission by Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Breakthrough Blood Test Shows the ‘Color of Pain’

By Steve Weakley

A revolutionary new blood test developed by Australian researchers could give doctors instant insight into the severity of chronic pain by identifying colored biomarkers in the blood.  The “painHS” test uses advanced light spectrum analysis to identify the molecular structure of pain in immune cells.

“We are literally quantifying the color of pain,” explains neuroscientist Mark Hutchinson, PhD, a professor at the University of Adelaide Medical School in Australia.  “We’ve now discovered that we can use the natural color of biology to predict the severity of pain. What we’ve found is that persistent chronic pain has a different natural color in immune cells than in a situation where there isn’t persistent pain.”

Hutchinson and his colleagues discovered molecular changes in the immune cells of chronic pain patients. These pain biomarkers can be instantly identified through hyperspectral imaging, giving doctors the ability to measure a patient’s pain tolerance and sensitivity.

The test could potentially provide physicians with the first biology-based test to measure pain as the “5th vital sign” and to justify prescribing pain medication or other therapies.

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Hutchinson was quick to point out that the test is not intended replace a patient’s description of pain to their physician.  Pain is subjective and varies from patient to patient, depending on their medical condition and many other factors.  Current tests used to measure pain in adults, such as the sad and smiley faces of the Wong-Baker pain scale, are so simple they were initially developed for young children.

“Self-reporting (by patients) is still going to be key but what this does mean is that those ‘forgotten people’ who are unable to communicate their pain conditions such as babies or people with dementia can now have their condition diagnosed and treated,” said Hutchinson, who believes the test could also revolutionize pain treatment in animals.

“Animals can’t tell us if they’re in pain but here we have a Dr. Doolittle type test that enables us to ‘talk’ to the animals so we can find out if they are experiencing pain and then we can help them."

Hutchinson says the test could also help speed the development of new drugs that could target particular kinds of chronic pain, and could eliminate the need for placebos in clinical trials by giving an instant indicator of a treatment’s effectiveness.

“We now know there is a peripheral cell signal, so we could start designing new types of drugs for new types of cellular therapies that target the peripheral immune system to tackle central nervous system pain,” he explained.

Hutchinson thinks the “painHS” test could be widely available to pain specialists and general practitioners in as little as 18 months and could provide a cost-effective tool to measure the severity of pain in patients with back problems, cancer, fibromyalgia, migraines and other conditions.

Several other blood tests have already been developed to diagnose patients with specific chronic pain conditions such as fibromyalgia.

IQuity Labs recently introduced a blood test that can identify fibromyalgia by analyzing ribonucleic acid (RNA) in blood molecules. EpicGenetics launched the first fibromyalgia blood test in 2013. That test looks for chemokines and cytokines, which are protein molecules produced by white blood cells.

New Blood Test Launched for Fibromyalgia

By Pat Anson, Editor

A Tennessee laboratory has launched an innovative new blood test that uses RNA analysis to diagnose patients with fibromyalgia. IQuityLabs says its test – called IsolateFibromyalgia – can identify fibromyalgia within a week and with over 90 percent accuracy. The test costs $599.

Ribonucleic acid (RNA) is a molecule that plays an essential role in sensing and communicating responses to cellular signals. Unlike DNA tests, which can only predict the likelihood of someone having a disease, RNA tests show what is actually happening at a cellular level. 

IMAGE COURTESY OF IQUITY

IMAGE COURTESY OF IQUITY

“When we look at RNA in blood, we’re looking at a snapshot of what’s actually taking place at that moment inside the patient’s blood cells,” explained Chase Spurlock, CEO of IQuity. “Using that information, we can decipher those molecular communication patterns, those RNA signals that are taking place, and figure out does it look like fibromyalgia syndrome or does it look like something else?

“In the case of fibromyalgia, we completed our clinical validation studies and our accuracy is at 94 percent and the sensitivity and specificity are greater than 90 percent as well. So, it’s a highly actionable test.” 

The National Institutes of Health estimates that about 5 million Americans suffer from fibromyalgia, a poorly understood disorder characterized by deep tissue pain, fatigue, headaches, mood swings and insomnia. It often takes years for a patient to be diagnosed with fibromyalgia and some doctors still refuse to recognize it as a disease.

In 2013, California-based EpicGenetics launched the first fibromyalgia blood test. The FM/a test looks for chemokines and cytokines, which are protein molecules produced by white blood cells. Fibromyalgia patients have fewer chemokines and cytokines than healthy people, according to EpicGenetics, and have weaker immune systems as a result. Critics say the FM/a test is unreliable and the same molecule levels can be found in people with other disorders, such as rheumatoid arthritis.

Spurlock says RNA testing is more specific and accurate than DNA or other blood tests used to diagnose autoimmune conditions. 

“I think what this test will do is allow for clarity and efficiency in the provider-patient relationship,” he said. “Once we receive the blood samples here, our lab technicians process the sample and we report the result back within a week.” 

Last year IQuity launched blood tests to diagnose multiple sclerosis and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). It hopes to further develop the science to diagnose other autoimmune disorders.

Should Gabapentin Be a Controlled Substance?

By Pat Anson, Editor

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration should consider scheduling gabapentin (Neurontin) as a controlled substance, according to researchers who studied the recreational use of the drug in Kentucky.

Gabapentin is a nerve medication approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat epilepsy and post-herpetic neuralgia (shingles), but it is also widely prescribed off-label to treat fibromyalgia, migraines, neuropathy and other chronic pain conditions. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention even recommends gabapentin as a safer alternative to opioids.

Sales of gabapentin have soared in recent years. About 64 million prescriptions were written for gabapentin in the U.S. in 20l6, a 49% increase in just five years.

But drug abusers have also discovered that gabapentin can heighten the effects of heroin, marijuana, cocaine and other substances.

"People are looking for other drugs to substitute for opioids, and gabapentin has filled that place for some," said Rachel Vickers Smith, PhD, an assistant professor at the University of Louisville School of Nursing. “Some have said it gives them a high similar to opioids. It had been easy to get a prescription for gabapentin and it's very cheap."

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Vickers Smith and her colleagues recruited 33 people from Appalachian Kentucky who used gabapentin recreationally and asked them about their drug use. Many reported they started taking gabapentin over 10 years earlier for a legitimate medical condition, such as pain and anxiety. Over time, they started using the drug to help them relax, sleep and get high.

“Focus group responses highlighted the low cost of gabapentin for the purpose of getting high and noted increasing popularity in the community, particularly over the last 2 years. Gabapentin was a prominent drug of abuse in two cohorts of the primarily opioid-using individuals. Providers should be aware of gabapentin’s abuse potential, and a reexamination of the need for scheduling is warranted,” researchers reported in the journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors.

In 2017, Kentucky became the first state to classify gabapentin as a controlled substance, which makes it more difficult for the medication to be prescribed. Ohio’s Substance Abuse Monitoring Network also issued an alert warning of gabapentin misuse across the state.

‘Snake Oil of the 20th Century’

Gabapentin was first approved by the FDA in 1993 and sold by Pfizer under the brand name Neurontin. A few years later, it was so widely prescribed that a top Pfizer executive called gabapentin “the snake oil of the twentieth century” in an email. The company was later fined hundreds of millions of dollars for promoting Neurontin’s off-label use.

"Early on, it was assumed to have no abuse potential," says Vickers Smith. "There's a need to examine it in further detail, especially if prescribing it is going to be encouraged."

Federal health officials have only recently started looking into the misuse and abuse of gabapentinoids, a class of nerve medication that includes gabapentin and pregabalin (Lyrica).

"Our preliminary findings show that abuse of gabapentinoids doesn't yet appear to be widespread, but use continues to increase, especially for gabapentin," FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb, MD, said last week at a conference on opioid prescribing. "We're concerned that abuse and misuse of these drugs may result in serious adverse events such as respiratory depression and death. We want to understand changes in how patients are using these medications."

Gottlieb said FDA investigators are looking at websites and social media where opioid users discuss their use of gabapentinoids.

"We know we need to investigate and respond to signs of abuse as soon as signals emerge. We need to get ahead of these problems," he said.

Gabapentin is not currently scheduled as a controlled substance by the DEA, while Lyrica is classified as a Schedule V controlled substance, meaning it has a low potential for addiction and abuse.  

Study Finds Little Evidence Shock Therapy Works

By Pat Anson, Editor

There is little evidence that electric shock therapy is an effective treatment for fibromyalgia, headache, degenerative joint pain and other chronic pain conditions, according to a new study by researchers at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Cranial electric stimulation (CES) uses electrodes placed on the head to send small electric shocks to the brain to stimulate neurotransmitters.  Consumer interest in the therapy is increasing and several manufacturers make portable CES devices for home use -- such as the Fisher Wallace stimulator and Alpha-Stim AID -- marketing them as a treatment for pain, depression, anxiety and insomnia.

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But in a review of 26 clinical trials published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, researchers found “limited evidence” to support the use of CES to treat these medical conditions. Many of the studies were small, had questionable validity and the reported results were often inconsistent. Some studies suggested that CES therapy could help patients with depression and anxiety, but the VA researchers say better studies were needed to prove it.

“The evidence for the effectiveness and safety of CES is sparse. Low-strength evidence suggests a beneficial association in patients with anxiety and depression. The intervention is probably safe, but strength of evidence is low,” wrote lead author Paul Shekelle, MD, of the West Los Angeles Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

In an editorial also published in the journal, a physician who uses CES therapy on his patients called the study findings “disappointing,” but said he and his colleagues would probably keep using the devices.

“I am not sure what my hospital will do with the information from this review. I know I will be less enthusiastic about recommending CES; however, I doubt that we will stop using it,” wrote Wayne Jonas, MD, of Samueli Integrative Health Programs in Alexandria, VA.

“When one of my patients, who had chronic pain, depression, and insomnia, finished her first CES treatment, she said she loved it. ‘I felt really relaxed,’ she said. ‘Can I have one of these at home?’ Our policy is to have patients try the treatment in the clinic at least 3 times. If it improves pain, depression, or insomnia, the patient can apply to get a home machine.”

The Food and Drug Administration first approved the use of CES in 1978 to treat depression, anxiety and insomnia. Because of that initial approval, the CES devices on the market today have not been required to prove their safety and effectiveness. The devices can be easily purchased online, but a prescription is required in the U.S.

Fibromyalgia Linked to Overactive Brain Networks

By Pat Anson, Editor

Many fibromyalgia sufferers have been told that the pain is “all in their head.” New research indicates there may be some truth to that, and that overactive brain networks could play a role in the hypersensitivity of fibromyalgia patients.

Fibromyalgia is a poorly understood disorder characterized by deep tissue pain, fatigue, headaches, mood swings and insomnia. There is no known cause and successful treatments have been elusive.

In a lengthy study published in the journal Scientific Reports, an international team of researchers at the University of Michigan and in South Korea report that patients with fibromyalgia have brain networks primed for rapid responses to minor changes. This abnormal hypersensitivity is known as called explosive synchronization (ES).

"For the first time, this research shows that the hypersensitivity experienced by chronic pain patients may result from hypersensitive brain networks," says co-senior author Richard Harris, PhD, an associate professor of anesthesiology at Michigan Medicine’s Chronic Pain and Fatigue Research Center.

In ES, a small stimulus can lead to a dramatic synchronized reaction throughout the network, as can happen when a power outage triggers a major grid failure or blackout. Until recently, this phenomenon was studied in physics rather than medicine. Researchers say it's a promising avenue to explore in the quest to determine how a person develops fibromyalgia.

"As opposed to the normal process of gradually linking up different centers in the brain after a stimulus, chronic pain patients have conditions that predispose them to linking up in an abrupt, explosive manner," says first author UnCheol Lee, PhD., a physicist and assistant professor of anesthesiology at Michigan Medicine.

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The researchers tested their theory by conducting electroencephalogram (EEG) tests on the brains of 10 female patients with fibromyalgia. Baseline EEG results showed the patients had hypersensitive brain networks, and that there was a strong correlation between the degree of ES conditions and the self-reported intensity of their pain during EEG testing.

Lee's research team and collaborators in South Korea then used computer models of brain activity to compare the stimulus responses of the fibromyalgia patients to those of healthy ones. As expected, the fibromyalgia model was more sensitive to electrical stimulation.

"We again see the chronic pain brain is electrically unstable and sensitive," Harris says.

Harris says this type of modeling could help guide future treatments for fibromyalgia. Since ES can be modeled outside of the brain in computers, researchers can test for influential regions that transform a hypersensitive network into a more stable one. These regions could then be targeted in living humans using noninvasive brain modulation therapies such as transcranial magnetic stimulation, which is currently used to treat fibromyalgia and depression.

“We expect that our study may ultimately suggest new approaches for analgesic treatments. ES provides a theoretical framework and quantitative approach to test interventions that shift a hypersensitive brain network to a more normal brain network,” researchers reported. 

“It may be possible to convert an ES network to a non-ES network just by modulating one or two hub nodes. Indeed, transcranial magnetic stimulation and/or transcranial direct current stimulation may be improved by ‘targeting’ these sensitive hub nodes. The application of deep brain stimulation to critical nodes that could modify ES conditions is another therapeutic possibility that could be explored.”

The research was funded by the Cerephex Corporation, James S. McDonnell Foundation, and the National Institutes of Health

Lyrica and Neurontin Use Triples

By Pat Anson, Editor

The use of gabapentin (Neurontin) and pregabalin (Lyrica) has soared in the United States, with little attention paid to their safety and effectiveness, according to a research letter published in JAMA Internal Medicine.

Gabapentin and pregabalin belong to a class of nerve medication known as gabapentinoids, which are increasingly prescribed as alternatives to opioids in treating neuropathy, fibromyalgia and other types of chronic pain.

In an analysis of health data for nearly 350,000 patients, researchers found that the use of gabapentinoids more than tripled in the past decade, from 1.2% of patients in 2002 to 3.9% in 2015.

Use of the drugs was concentrated in older patients with numerous other health problems, who were often co-prescribed opioids or benzodiazepines, a class of anti-anxiety medication.

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“The combination of a dearth of long-term safety data, small effect sizes, concern for increased risk of overdose in combination with opioid use, and high rates of off-label prescribing, which are associated with high rates of adverse effects, raises concern about the levels of gabapentinoid use,” wrote lead researcher Michael Johansen, MD, of OhioHealth, a large non-profit health system based in Ohio.

“While individual clinical scenarios can be challenging, caution should be advised in the use of gabapentinoids, particularly for those individuals who are long-term opioid users, given the lack of proven long-term efficacy and the known and unknown risks of gabapentinoid use.”

JAMA INTERNAL MEDICINE

JAMA INTERNAL MEDICINE

Johansen’s research adds to a growing body of evidence that pregabalin and gabapentin are overprescribed and being abused. A recent study by Canadian researchers found that there was “no clear rationale” for the off-label use of the drugs and warned that they have a “significant risk of adverse effects” such as dizziness, fatigue and diminished mental activity.

Lyrica (pregabalin) and Neurontin (gabapentin) are both made by Pfizer and are two of the company’s top selling drugs, generating billions of dollars in annual sales. Lyrica is approved by the FDA to treat diabetic nerve pain, fibromyalgia, post-herpetic neuralgia caused by shingles and spinal cord injuries; while Neurontin is approved to treat epilepsy and post-herpetic neuralgia. Both drugs are also widely prescribed off label to treat back pain, depression, migraine and other conditions.

Sales of pregabalin and gabapentin have risen steadily in recent years, in part because of CDC prescribing guidelines that recommend the two drugs as alternatives to opioid pain medication. About 64 million prescriptions were written for gabapentin in the U.S. in 20l6, a 49% increase in just five years.

“We believe… that gabapentinoids are being prescribed excessively — partly in response to the opioid epidemic,” Christopher Goodman, MD, and Allan Brett, MD, recently wrote in a commentary published in The New England Journal of Medicine. “We suspect that clinicians who are desperate for alternatives to opioids have lowered their threshold for prescribing gabapentinoids to patients with various types of acute, subacute, and chronic noncancer pain.

Gabapentinoids are increasingly being used recreationally by addicts who have found the medications enhance the effects of heroin and other opioids. Lyrica and Neurontin have been linked to heroin overdoses in the United Kingdom, where prescriptions for both drugs have soared in recent years. 

Painkillers Raise Risk of Obesity and Hypertension

By Pat Anson, Editor

Commonly prescribed painkillers such as opioids and gabapentinoids  -- a class of pain medication that includes Lyrica and Neurontin – significantly raise the risk of obesity and high blood pressure, according to a large new study published in PLOS ONE.

British researchers analyzed health data on over 133,000 people, comparing the Body Mass Index (BMI), waist circumference, blood pressure and sleeping habits of patients taking pain relievers to those who did not. The study is believed to be the largest to look at the effects of painkillers on overall health.

“In the last two decades there has been a significant increase in the number of people being prescribed both opioid and non-opioid medications to treat chronic pain,” said lead author Sophie Cassidy, PhD,  a research associate at the Institute of Cellular Medicine, Newcastle University. “We already know that opiates are dependency-forming but this study also found patients taking opiates have the worst health. Obesity rates are much higher and the patients reported sleeping poorly.”

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Those taking opioids were 95% more likely to be obese, 82% more like to have a “very high” waist circumference and 63% more likely to have hypertension compared to the control group.  

“There could be a number of possible mechanisms by which opioids might be associated with weight gain. Sedation might decrease physical activity and therefore reduce energy expenditure, those in our cohort taking opiates were less active, and those taking both opiates and other sedative drugs were the least active. Opioids have also been shown to alter taste perception with a craving for sugar and sweet foods described,” Cassidy wrote.

“These results add further weight to calls for these chronic pain medications to be prescribed for shorter periods.”

Patients who took gabapentinoids were also more likely to be obese, have a bigger waist and higher blood pressure compared to those not taking the drugs.

Gabapentinoids are commonly prescribed as alternatives to opioids to treat neuropathy, shingles and fibromyalgia, although many patients complain about side effects such as weight gain, depression and anxiety.

As PNN has reported, gabapentinoids are also coming under scrutiny because they are increasingly being abused. Lyrica (pregabalin) and Neurontin (gabapentin) are being reclassified as controlled “Class C” substances in the UK, following a spike in the number of deaths involving the medications.

Last week, the West Virginia Board of Pharmacy designated gabapentin as a “drug of concern,” after overdoses in the state involving gabapentin rose from 36 deaths in 2012 to 106 in 2016.  Ohio, Pennsylvania and Kentucky have also reported increases in fatal overdoses involving gabapentin.