5 Million U.S. Cancer Survivors Live with Chronic Pain

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Over five million cancer survivors in the United States live with chronic pain, a fast-growing population that is expected to double by 2040 due to the aging of the population, early cancer detection and advances in treatment, according to a new study by the American Cancer Society.

Chronic pain is one of the most common side effects of chemotherapy and other forms of cancer treatment, but until now there has been little information on its prevalence among cancer survivors.

Researchers looked at data from the National Health Interview Survey from 2016-2017 and found that about a third of cancer survivors (34.6%) have chronic pain. About one in six (16.1%) have “high impact” chronic pain (HICP) – defined as pain that limits life or work activities on most days.

Based on that survey data, researchers estimate the total number of cancers survivors in the U.S. at 15.5 million. About 5.39 million of them have chronic pain and 2.51 million have high impact chronic pain.

“We found the prevalence of chronic pain and HICP among cancer survivors to be almost double that in the general U.S. population. Chronic pain and HICP were more prevalent in survivors who were unemployed and who had low socioeconomic status, inadequate insurance, and had some specific types of cancer,” researchers reported in JAMA Oncology.

“The patterns of chronic pain that we observed in cancer survivors may be explained by barriers to cancer care and pain management as well as by the type and extent of cancer treatment received.”

One barrier to pain management stems from efforts to rein in opioid prescribing to prevent abuse and addiction. While the 2016 CDC opioid guideline is intended for “noncancer” patients, it is also applies to patients “who have completed cancer treatment, are in clinical remission, and are under cancer surveillance only.”

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Two experts in oncology and palliative care at the University of Pennsylvania say the CDC’s inclusion of cancer survivors was a mistake because it is not uncommon for cancer pain to persist long after a cancer is treated.  

“Unfortunately, this arbitrary distinction is not consistent with the evidence of pain trajectory in cancer survivors,” Neha Vapiwala, MD, and Salimah Meghani, PhD, wrote in an op/ed also published in JAMA Oncology. “Similar levels of pain were reported in survivors who were still receiving cancer treatment and those who had completed active cancer treatment.”

It’s not uncommon for cancer patients undergoing active treatment to be denied pain medication. Many doctors are reluctant to prescribe opioids, regardless of the diagnosis.

“My cancer doctor will no longer prescribe pain meds for me because I now see a pain doctor. The pain doctor doesn't understand the new cancer drug I'm on and that the side effects of this drug are pain, so he is very reluctant to manage my cancer pain,” a patient with lymphoma told us. “Many days I wonder if it would just be better to let the cancer take its course than to be scrutinized and treated like a criminal.”

April Doyle is being treated for Stage 4 terminal breast cancer, but a Rite Aid pharmacist refused to fill her prescription for Norco because he was worried about being fined or even losing his job. April’s video about the experience went viral.

“I have to take 20 pills a day just to stay alive,” she explains in the video. “Every time I take my pain pill prescription there, they give me the runaround. They don’t have enough in stock or they need me to come back tomorrow because they can’t fill it today. Or something stupid. It’s always something and it’s always some stupid excuse.”

The American Cancer Society study found that chronic pain was most common among cancer survivors treated for bone, kidney, throat-pharynx and uterine cancers.  About half still had pain after their cancer treatment ended.

AMA Opposed to ‘Blacklisting’ of Doctors Over Rx Opioids

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

The American Medical Association is hardening its opposition to public and private policies that seek to limit opioid prescribing. The AMA House of Delegates this week passed resolutions calling for prescribing guidelines to be amended to allow physicians to use their own clinical judgement to decide if higher doses of opioids are medically necessary. The AMA’s ruling body also called for an end to the “blacklisting” of doctors who prescribe high doses.

The AMA didn’t always feel this way about guidelines. When the CDC released its controversial opioid guideline in 2016, the AMA sent a letter to CDC Director Thomas Frieden that “applauded the CDC for treating the epidemic of opioid overdose deaths as a high priority.” And Patrice Harris, MD, a psychiatrist who chaired an AMA Task Force to Reduce Opioid Abuse, said the AMA was “largely supportive of the guidelines.”

Harris, who recently became the AMA President, now says the guidelines “have no basis in science.”

“Physicians can’t be expected to fight the epidemic with one hand tied behind their back, handicapped by policies that limit choices for patients and have no basis in science,” Harris said in a statement.

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The AMA House of Delegates finally took a stand against the CDC guideline last November, when it passed resolutions opposing the “misapplication” of the guideline by pharmacists, insurers, pharmacy benefit managers, states and regulatory agencies.  

Although the 2016 guideline is voluntary, it has resulted in many patients being forcibly tapered to lower doses, cutoff entirely or even abandoned by their doctors – all under the guise of preventing opioid addiction and overdoses.

This week’s resolutions by the AMA’s ruling body went a step further, calling for an end to the “inappropriate use” of the CDC guideline to set dosing limits and blacklist physicians who exceed them.  

RESOLVED that our AMA support balanced opioid sparing policies that are not based on hard thresholds, but on patient individuality, and help ensure safe prescribing practices, minimize workflow disruptions, and ensure patients have access to their medications in a timely manner, without additional, cumbersome documentation requirements.

RESOLVED that our AMA oppose the use of “high prescriber” lists used by national pharmacy chains, pharmacy benefit manager companies or health insurance companies when those lists do not provide due process and are used to blacklist physicians from writing prescriptions for controlled substances and preventing patients from having their prescriptions filled at their pharmacy of choice.

RESOLVED that our AMA incorporate into their advocacy that clinical practice guidelines specific to cancer treatment, palliative care, and end-of-life be utilized in lieu of CDC’s Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain as per CDC’s clarifying recommendation.

The CDC’s so-called clarification came in a commentary published April 24 in The New England Journal of Medicine. Three authors of the guideline did not take any responsibility for the poor implementation of their recommendations, but acknowledged that “some policies and practices purportedly derived from the guideline have in fact been inconsistent with, and often go beyond, its recommendations.”

Nearly two months later, not a single word of the CDC guideline has been clarified or changed, and insurers, pharmacies and many states continue to enforce its voluntary recommendations as mandatory policy.

Doctors who prescribe high doses of controlled substances are also being blacklisted by the DEA and state medical boards, which routinely use prescription drug monitoring programs (PDMPs) to identify and target physicians who are considered “high prescribers.”

Federal prosecutors have also sent letters to hundreds of physicians warning them that their opioid prescribing practices could subject them to criminal prosecution — often without any evidence that their patients were harmed by the drugs.

Misleading CDC Study Links Prescription Opioids to Binge Drinking 

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

A new study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that over half of people who misuse prescription opioids also binge drink, increasing their risk of dying from an overdose.

“We are losing far too many Americans each day from overdoses,” CDC Director Robert Redfield, MD, said in a statement. “Combining alcohol and opioids can significantly increase the risk of overdoses and deaths.”

Binge drinking and misuse of opioid medication are never a good idea, whether done separately or in combination. Unfortunately, the CDC study is written in ways that mislead and further worsen the stigma associated with prescription opioid use. And it fails to acknowledge the role CDC itself has played in the growing use of alcohol for pain relief.

The study, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, is based on survey of over 160,000 people who participated in the National Survey on Drug Use and Health from 2012 to 2014. After analyzing their answers, CDC researchers came to some sweeping conclusions about Americans getting high on pills and alcohol.

“Prescription opioids were responsible for approximately 17,000 deaths in the U.S. in 2016. One in five prescription opioid deaths also involve alcohol,” wrote lead author Marissa Ether, PhD, CDC Division of Population Health.

“More than half of the 4.2 million people who misused prescription opioids during 20122014 were binge drinkers, and binge drinkers had nearly twice the odds of misusing prescription opioids, compared with nondrinkers.”

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The statement that prescription opioids “were responsible” for 17,000 deaths is misleading because it is based on data from death certificates and coroner reports that only indicate the medications were present or “involved” in overdoses. Other substances may have played a role or perhaps even caused those 17,000 deaths.

In 2016, over twice as many fatal overdoses involved heroin and illicit fentanyl, but CDC researchers “did not consider the use of illicit opioids” for their binge drinking study. Apparently, street drug users are teetotalers who do not drink.

And who were the binge drinkers who misused prescription opioids? They were recreational users of opioid medication who did not take the drugs for pain relief. “Misuse” in the study was defined as “use without a prescription or use only for the experience or feeling it causes.”

To be clear, pain patients with legitimate opioid prescriptions that are used appropriately were not included in the study. These patients are actually less likely to be binge drinkers — defined as four or more drinks by a woman, or five or more drinks by a man — and they are warned repeatedly not to mix their medications with alcohol. Including them would have significantly changed the study findings.

Patients Using Alcohol for Pain Relief

Perhaps the biggest oversight by CDC researchers is the 2012-2014 time frame chosen for their study – which is well before the agency released its controversial 2016 opioid prescribing guideline.

One of the key findings from a recent PNN survey of nearly 6,000 patients is that the guideline has limited their access to prescription opioids so severely that some are turning to alcohol for pain relief. Nearly one out of five patients surveyed said they had used alcohol for pain relief since the guideline came out.

“It has caused many pain patients to be cut off their pain medication,” one patient told us. “After losing my meds 16 months ago, I just started using alcohol and I never used alcohol. I don't like alcohol, but what are my options?” 

“Since my doctor stopped prescribing even my small amount of opioids I deal with days where I can’t even get out of bed because I hurt so much and I’m stuck turning to alcohol, excessive amounts of acetaminophen and NSAIDs,” another patient said. 

“The CDC guidelines are killing people,” one woman wrote. “My fiancé has been refused even the most mild stenosis treatment because he admitted using alcohol to treat his pain when he has no other treatment. He's mildly suicidal as well. We have two young kids.” 

“I lost a good friend to suicide because she was not able to get pain medications to relieve her pain and it was too much for her to handle,” a patient said. “Sadly, she is not the only one. I'm hearing about more and more. I'm also hearing about people turning towards alcohol.” 

“All they are doing is pushing chronic pain patients to find relief in other ways such as alcohol, illicit drugs or harming themselves to get the pain relief they do desperately seek,” wrote another patient. 

In other words, alcohol use is acceptable to the CDC — as long as it is not combined with prescribed opioid medication. This is your nation’s health protection agency at work.

Fibromyalgia Stole My Life, Kratom Gave It Back

By Mary Ann Dunkel, Guest Columnist

Fibromyalgia stole my life more than 28 years ago. I have severe chronic pain and fatigue that limits my activities of daily living. Unless you have experienced unrelenting severe pain 24 hours a day, you cannot know the horror of it.

I have been prescribed more pharmaceuticals than I can remember and suffered damaging side effects from them. I've participated in psychotherapy, aqua therapy, multiple pain management programs, acupuncture and hypnosis. None of these modalities brought me relief and for quite some time I was bedridden and dependent on family for care.

My doctors have prescribed me morphine, fentanyl, oxycodone, tramadol and other medications to control the pain. None of them worked for very long and I could see these prescriptions were going to lead to addiction. Often, I weaned myself off them and suffered through terrible withdrawal because the small amount of relief they gave was not worth the risk of addiction or overdose death. Bottom line is these narcotics were not effective in treating my chronic pain.

There were times when I thought about taking my life because I just couldn't get a break from the pain and didn't think I could take it any longer.

Then a friend introduced me to kratom. She had been consuming it for more than 10 years without side effects or becoming addicted to it. I started my own journey consuming kratom.

Kratom is not a drug. It is a dietary supplement. It does not heal any disease, but it has certainly improved my quality of life. I am having pain free days and my energy level is greatly improved. Kratom has restored my ability to have a normal life and I can enjoy all sorts of activities that make my life rich and full.

Kratom does not make me high, nor do I experience side effects. I am now clear minded without the sedation caused by narcotics. And I am devastated that the FDA is working to ban the only thing that has helped me in the past 28 years.

MARY ANN DUNKEL

MARY ANN DUNKEL

I am sick to death of reporters parroting the lies from the FDA and CDC. I implore you. The studies they have done are full of inaccuracies and half-truths. Independent studies of the autopsies in the so called kratom deaths have shown the victims had multiple medications in their systems. They also included a death caused by gunshot.

Eight leading scientists have studied kratom and found it to be safe. It has been used for hundreds of years without problem. It is not an opioid; it is related to the coffee plant. It does attach to the same receptors in the brain as opioids, but so do many other substances such as chocolate and milk.

I would suggest to you that the FDA wants it banned because it is cutting into Big Pharma's financial bottom line. People are finding the help they need without costly and deadly pharmaceuticals. I fear that if kratom is banned this country will see an epidemic of self-inflicted deaths by people who have no hope. Kratom would become a black market substance due to overreach by the government to protect the monies they get from pharmaceutical lobbies.

Please investigate these facts and do the right thing. Do a story on the positives of kratom.

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Do you have a story you want to share on PNN? Send it 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.

Forced Opioid Tapering: ‘The Next Great Experiment’

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Last month the Food and Drug Administration warned doctors not to abruptly discontinue or rapidly taper patients on opioid pain medication. The agency said it had received reports of “serious harm” to patients who’ve been suddenly cutoff, including withdrawal symptoms, uncontrolled pain, psychological distress and suicide.  

A new study published in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment shows just how common the practice is. And how millions of pain patients are being subjected to a public health experiment with hardly anyone keeping track of what happens to them.

“The United States went through a great ‘experiment’ of expanding treatment of pain with opioids which has proved to be disastrous for public health. We have entered the next great ‘experiment’ of discontinuing opioid medications among the millions of Americans who are currently taking them,” said lead author Tami Mark, PhD, senior director of behavioral health at RTI International, a non-profit research institute.

“Little is known about how many individuals are tapering off opioid medications, whether observed tapering follows any… guidelines, and the extent to which rapid tapering is associated with negative consequences.”

Mark and her colleagues looked at medical and pharmacy claims for nearly 500 Medicaid patients in Vermont who had high doses of opioid medication discontinued from 2013 to 2017.

All of the patients were prescribed a daily dose of at least 120 MME (morphine milligram equivalent) and over half had been on that high dose for over a year. 

Although most clinical guidelines recommend a “go slow” approach to opioid tapering – especially for patients on high doses – only 5 percent of the Vermont patients had a tapering period longer than 90 days. The vast majority (86%) were rapidly tapered in 21 days or less, including about half who were cut off from opioids without any tapering.

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that patients on opioids be tapered only 10% a week, with even slower tapers of 10% a month for long-term users. Had those guidelines been applied in Vermont, most tapers would have taken up to a year to complete.

Half of Tapered Patients Hospitalized

What happened to the patients who were cut off? Nearly half were hospitalized or had an emergency room visit for an “opioid-related adverse event” -- a medical code that can mean anything from severe withdrawal symptoms to acute respiratory failure. For tapered patients, the risk of being hospitalized was reduced by 7% for each additional week of tapering.

Researchers don’t know how many of the discontinued patients committed suicide or how many were referred to addiction treatment. Notably, less than one percent received medication assistance treatment (MAT) such as Suboxone.

The study did not look at why patients were taken off opioids or who initiated the discontinuation. But researchers believe some of the rapid discontinuations “may be due to a breakdown in the clinical relationship between physicians and patients” – suggesting the patients were forcibly tapered or abandoned by their doctors.

In its warning to doctors, the FDA strongly recommends that patients not be forcibly tapered and that patients and doctors should jointly agree to a tapering plan.

“Health care professionals should not abruptly discontinue opioids in a patient who is physically dependent. When you and your patient have agreed to taper the dose of opioid analgesic, consider a variety of factors, including the dose of the drug, the duration of treatment, the type of pain being treated, and the physical and psychological attributes of the patient. No standard opioid tapering schedule exists that is suitable for all patients,” the FDA said.

Forced Tapering Widespread

How many patients have been forcibly tapered or discontinued is unclear, but it probably runs in the millions. A recent report from IQVIA found that there were 75 million fewer opioid prescriptions filled last year compared to 2014, with the biggest decline in high dose prescriptions. 

In PNN’s recent survey of nearly 6,000 pain patients, over 80 percent said they had been taken off opioids or had their dose reduced since the CDC released its controversial opioid guideline in 2016. Many were turning to other substances – both legal and illegal – for pain relief. And nearly half said they had considered suicide because their pain is poorly treated.

“I have been forced to taper to 90 MME. I had been stable and functional for 10 years at 135 MME. Now I can no longer work, and can barely take care of my children. I am considering suicide because my pain is unbearable,” one patient told us.

“I have been forcibly tapered by more than half and my pain is not being relieved at this dose. I am now unable to work or care for my children,” another patient wrote. “I live in constant anxiety (which worsens my pain) that I will be abandoned, refused any pain management, or reduced to a dose so low that taking my own life is the only way to escape the pain.”

“My forced taper was a little over a year ago. Before that I lived a small but functional life on high dose opioids. I took the same dose, from the same doctor for over a decade. Then I was forced off of 75% of my dose,” said another patient. “Once we got down to my current dose the medication was no longer enough to control my pain. I now live a tiny, nonfunctional life. I spend all my time in bed watching TV. I never leave the house. Showers are my worst enemy. And I am lucky. I wasn’t abandoned by my doctor.”

A noted critic of opioid prescribing calls reports like these exaggerations. Andrew Kolodny, MD, the Executive Director and founder of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP), told Stateline that the number of doctors who are inappropriately tapering patients is likely very small and should not be blamed on the CDC.

"We have a very real problem in this country. But the CDC guidelines didn't cause it," Kolodny said. "The problem is that millions of Americans have been put on round-the-clock opioids at very high doses and for reasons that doctors now realize were not appropriate.

"What the FDA needs to tell doctors is that because it is so excruciating to come off of opioids, they need to be very selective about who they put on them.”

In a series of Tweets two years ago, Kolodny said patients on high doses should be forcibly tapered “even if patient refuses” and challenged assertions that forced tapering was risky and widespread.

Now Kolodny says he sympathizes with patients but claims they are being manipulated.

“Their emotions are real. But they’re being effectively manipulated to controversialize the CDC guidelines,” he told Stateline.

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Many of Kolodny’s colleagues disagree. Over 300 healthcare professionals warned in a joint letter last year that forced opioid tapering has led to “an alarming increase in reports of patient suffering and suicides” and called for an urgent review of tapering policies at every level of healthcare.

“This is a large-scale humanitarian issue,” the letter warns. “New and grave risks now exist because of forced opioid tapering.” 

Still No Relief in Sight for Canadian Pain Patients

By Marvin Ross, Guest Columnist

Last month the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the agency’s 2016 opioid guideline does not endorse rapid tapering or discontinuation of opioid therapy. The CDC was responding to mounting criticism that its controversial guideline was causing harm to patients, including uncontrolled pain, depression and suicide.

As a Canadian, I am envious and embarrassed, for it is not over for pain patients in Canada. Americans have had active advocates in the American Medical Association and hundreds of doctors signing a public letter of protest, which resulted in the CDC and Food and Drug Administration finally admitting that forcing people to go off opiates is not good practice.

Canadian docs have said little about this, so I decided to ask the main authors of Canada’s opioid guideline, which is pretty much a copy of the CDC’s. They had written in response to me last year in the Canadian Medical Association Journal that they had “concerns” about inappropriate tapering and would “monitor the emerging literature.” Only one replied to me this time, saying that they speak out whenever they can, but no one will listen to them.

One anonymous doctor going by the name of “doc2help” objected to a piece I did in Medium suggesting that Canadian doctors have lost their moral compass. He thinks I am ill informed and doing damage.

I also let the office of the Canadian Minister of Health know what the CDC and FDA have done, as Health Canada has the same regulatory powers for drug approvals as the FDA. The answer was that they are having internal discussions.

Meetings and discussions make the bureaucracy go round-and-round. The Minister of Health did recently announce the formation of a chronic pain task force, but it has a three year time frame for more meetings.

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It is so much easier to blame patients and opioid prescribing, as Canadian authorities continue to do, even when most drug overdoses are the result of illicit fentanyl, not prescription opioids.

In Hamilton, Ontario, a medium sized city southwest of Toronto, opioid deaths are going up, while prescriptions are going down. Much of the illicit drugs in that city are due to pharmacy diversion, according to an excellent article in the Hamilton Spectator that revealed vast amounts of prescription drugs are making it onto our streets.

So far, 15 pharmacists have been caught peddling opioids illegally and Health Canada has found that over 1,400 Ontario pharmacies have reported missing drugs that they cannot account for. 

Dr. Anne Holbrook, director of clinical pharmacology at McMaster University, suggested it is patients who are selling their prescriptions on the street, but provided no studies to back up that claim when she spoke to the Spectator reporter. I have asked her directly and via the media relations department at McMaster University, but did not get a reply.  

Blaming patients is easy when you do not want to confront the fact that most street drugs are coming into the country illegally or being diverted by pharmacies.

A Toronto Star investigation found one Ottawa pharmacy that was responsible for putting at least 5,000 fentanyl patches on the street. The investigation found that between 2013 and 2017, nearly 3.5 million doses of prescription drugs disappeared from Ontario pharmacies. Over 200 Ontario pharmacists were disciplined by their professional body for diverting “massive amounts of deadly opioids.”

Our governments are ignoring all of this and blaming the poor chronic pain patients. Those of us in Canada will have to wait while the bureaucrats hold meetings and write papers before anything will be done.

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Marvin Ross is a medical writer and publisher in Dundas, Ontario. He has been writing on chronic pain for the past year and is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post.

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.

House Panel Seeks Clinical Trials of Kratom

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

At a time when several states and cities have banned kratom, a powerful congressional committee is recommending that the herbal supplement be studied in clinical trials because of its “potential promising results” in treating chronic pain.

In a report to Congress, the House Appropriations Committee recommends that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) conduct research on whether kratom can be used as an alternative to opioids in treating pain.

“The Committee requests that NIH expand research on all health impacts of kratom, including its constituent compounds, mitragynine, and 7-hydroxymitragynine. The Committee is aware of the potential promising results of kratom for acute and chronic pain patients who seek safer alternatives to sometimes dangerously addictive and potentially deadly prescription opioids.”

The committee also recommended that the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) spend $3 million on clinical trials of kratom and cannabidiol (CBD) as alternatives for treating pain, and that the trials be conducted in “geographic regions hardest hit by the opioids crisis.”

The panel said it was concerned that the continuing classification of cannabis as a Schedule I controlled substance was stifling research “at a time when we need as much information as possible about these drugs.”

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“The Committee notes that little research has been done to date on natural products that are used by many to treat pain in place of opioids. These natural plants and substances include kratom and cannabidiol (CBD). Given the wide availability and increased use of these substances, it is imperative to know more about potential risks or benefits, and whether or not they can have a role in finding new and effective non-opioid methods to treat pain.”

The committee said the current state of pain management in the U.S. is “often inadequate for many patients” and that additional treatments were needed. It asked that Congress be given an update on the development of non-opioid chronic pain therapies in the next fiscal year.

To be clear, the 346-page report by the House committee is an ambitious “wish list” of hundreds of various projects that may or may not be included in a final congressional spending bill.  But the inclusion of funding for kratom research is significant, given the campaign against kratom by some public health offiicials.

Kratom comes from the leaves of a tree that grows in southeast Asia, where it has been used for centuries as a natural stimulant and pain reliever. In recent years millions of Americans have discovered kratom and use it as a daily treatment for pain, addiction, depression and anxiety.  

Although kratom is not an opioid, health officials have warned that it has “opioid-like” qualities, can be addictive and is not approved for any medical condition. Last month the CDC said kratom was listed as the cause of death in at least 91 overdoses and the FDA said it discovered dangerous levels of heavy metals in dozens of kratom products.

Kratom has been banned in 6 states and dozens of counties and cities have enacted or are considering their own bans. Last year, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recommended to the DEA that kratom be classified as a Schedule I substance – which would effectively ban it nationwide.

Ironically, HHS oversees both the NIH and AHRQ, the same agencies the House Appropriations Committee wants to fund for kratom research.   

What Next for CDC Opioid Guideline?

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

The pain community is reacting with a fair amount of skepticism to efforts by the CDC to address the widespread misuse of its 2016 opioid prescribing guideline.

A CDC commentary published Wednesday in The New England Journal of Medicine warns against the “misapplication” of the guideline, which has resulted in hard dosing limits, forced tapering and the medical abandonment of thousands of chronic pain patients.

Although the guideline strongly recommends that daily doses of opioids not exceed 90 MME (morphine milligram equivalent), the guideline’s three co-authors say their advice was misinterpreted and that the guideline “does not address or suggest discontinuation of opioids already prescribed at higher dosages.”

A CDC media statement this week also claimed “the guideline does not support abrupt tapering or sudden discontinuation of opioids.” 

That was surprising news to Rob Hale, a Missouri man with late-stage Ankylosing Spondylitis, a degenerative and incurable form of arthritis.  Like many other pain patients, Hale’s relatively high dose of opioid medication was significantly reduced soon after the guideline’s release.  As a result, he is now bedridden.

“This is amazing news, if they really intend to follow through with it,” said Hale in an email. “God, I hope this is the beginning of a turnaround in prescribing policies.  I just feel for the hundreds of us who gave up and took their lives or died as a result of the last 3 years of cruelty.”

Saving Face

Why the CDC is acting now is unclear. Reports of patient harm began circulating soon after the guideline’s release in March 2016, and have only accelerated as insurers, pharmacies, states and practitioners adopted the guideline as mandatory policy. In a recent PNN survey of nearly 6,000 patients, over 85 percent said the guideline has made their pain and quality of life worse. Nearly half say they have considered suicide.

“I regard this CDC statement to be an effort to save face and maintain political dominance on an issue into which CDC improperly inserted itself under the influence of Andrew Kolodny and PROP,” said patient advocate Richard “Red” Lawhern, referring to the founder of the anti-opioid activist group Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing.

“The statement fails to engage with the underlying issues which render the Guidelines fatally flawed.  It fails to acknowledge the essential repudiation of the entire guideline concept by the American Medical Association, plus multiple prominent medical professionals.” 

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“The CDC guidelines have been as harmful as predicted, and the silence over 3 years has been criminal. The ‘Who me?’ response is just as evil as the ignorant abuse of power that led to the crisis in the first place,” said Mark Ibsen, MD, a Montana physician whose license was suspended by the state medical board for “overprescribing” opioids. A judge overturned the board’s ruling.  

“Those who give a weak ‘mea culpa’ for misinterpretation of the guidelines are, in short, lying. The deaths of thousands of abandoned pain patients, including 6 of mine who lost access (to opioids), are on their hands,” Ibsen said. 

PNN asked a CDC spokesperson if the agency had received new information about patients being harmed by the guideline and received a vague response.  

“We have heard concerns from partners and stakeholders about policies and practices that are inconsistent with the 2016 Guideline and sometimes go beyond its recommendations. The misapplication of the Guideline can risk patient health and safety,” Courtney Lenard said in an email. “CDC authored this commentary to outline examples of misapplication of the Guideline, and highlight advice from the Guideline that is sometimes overlooked but is critical to safe and effective implementation of the recommendations.” 

The response was also vague when we asked if CDC would be directly contacting insurers, pharmacies and states to warn them about misapplying the guideline.

“CDC has engaged payers, quality improvement organizations, state health departments, and federal partners to encourage implementation of recommendations consistent with the intent of the Guideline,” said Lenard, citing a mobile app and a pocket guide to opioid tapering as examples of CDC outreach.

The agency also sent out a Tweet.

Lenard gave no indication that a revision of the guideline was imminent. She said the CDC was working with the Association of Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) to evaluate “new scientific evidence” about the benefits and harms of opioids.  

“Results of these reviews will help CDC decide whether evidence gaps have been addressed and whether the Guideline should be updated or expanded for chronic or acute pain prescribing,” Lenard wrote. 

Undoing the Damage

The American Medical Association – which took a stand against the “inappropriate use” of the guideline last year -- released a statement saying the CDC needed to work more closely with insurers.

“The guidelines have been misapplied so widely that it will be a challenge to undo the damage. The AMA is urging a detailed regulatory review of formulary and benefit design by payers and PBMs (pharmacy benefit managers),” said AMA President-elect Patrice Harris, MD.

“The CDC’s clarification underscores that patients with acute or chronic pain can benefit from taking prescription opioid analgesics at doses that may be greater than the guidelines or thresholds put forward by federal agencies, state governments, health insurance companies, pharmacy chains, pharmacy benefit managers and other advisory or regulatory bodies.”

Dr. Ibsen said the Drug Enforcement Administration was “the other elephant in the room” because it has weaponized the CDC guideline to demonize and prosecute doctors for prescribing high opioid doses. 

“Arresting and punishing doctors who treat the sickest pain patients. Civil asset forfeiture as used in dealing with criminal drug dealers. Equate physicians with a license to practice as equal to or below said criminal drug dealers,” said Ibsen, listing some of the tactics used by prosecutors.

“Charge physicians with one felony for every Rx they write, making absurdly dramatic charging documents and headlines against doctors who are left with no income or assets to defend themselves in a contaminated jury pool. Charge doctors with murder for prescribing medications to patients who fail to follow the directions.”

It’s not just the DEA. The National Association of Attorneys General recently declared that the dose and duration of opioid prescriptions should not be decided by doctors and that the CDC guideline should essentially be treated as law.

“As a matter of public safety, there is simply no justification to move away from the CDC Guideline to encourage more liberal use of an ineffective treatment,” warns a letter signed by 39 state and territory attorney generals. “As Attorneys General of states with high rates of prescription drug abuse among our youth, policy makers and prescribers must be encouraged to continue to pursue laws and practices that reduce the high volume of opioids in our communities.”

“The standard of care is now determined by prosecutors and juries,” says Ibsen.

CDC: Opioid Guideline Should Not Be Used to Taper Patients

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has taken its first concrete step to address the widespread misuse and misapplication of its opioid prescribing guideline.

In a commentary published in The New England Journal of Medicine, the guideline’s authors say the agency does not support abrupt tapering or discontinuation of opioid medication, and that the guideline’s recommendation that daily doses be limited to no more than 90 MME (morphine milligram equivalent) should only be applied to patients who are starting opioid therapy.

“Unfortunately, some policies and practices purportedly derived from the guideline have in fact been inconsistent with, and often go beyond, its recommendations,” wrote Deborah Dowell, MD, Tamara Haegerich, PhD, and Roger Chou, MD. “A consensus panel has highlighted these inconsistencies, which include inflexible application of recommended dosage and duration thresholds and policies that encourage hard limits and abrupt tapering of drug dosages, resulting in sudden opioid discontinuation or dismissal of patients from a physician’s practice.”

The co-authors also noted that the guideline “does not address or suggest discontinuation of opioids already prescribed at higher dosages,” nor does it seek to deny opioids to patients with cancer, sickle cell disease or recovering from surgical procedures.

The CDC’s clarification was cheered by patient advocates, who have been calling on the agency to address the suicides, patient abandonment and other unintended consequences of the guideline for over three years.

“The statement from the CDC is a long-awaited, robust clarification that has come at a critical time. They clearly defined that its Guideline cannot and should not be invoked to justify the forced reduction or denial of opioid pain medication to patients who use opioids to manage their long-term pain,” said Andrea Anderson, a patient advocate with the Alliance for the Treatment of Intractable Pain (ATIP).

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The CDC’s controversial guideline was released in March 2016 as a voluntary set of recommendations meant to discourage primary care physicians from prescribing opioids for chronic non-cancer pain. But the guideline was quickly adopted by states, insurers, pharmacies, practitioners and even law enforcement agencies, who saw it as a mandatory policy that all physicians should follow to reduce rates of opioid addiction and overdose.

Reports soon began surfacing of patients being forcibly tapered off opioids or being abandoned by doctors who no longer wanted to treat them. Within months of the guideline’s release, CDC was warned by its own public relations consultants that “doctors are following these guidelines as strict law” and that some patients “are now left with little to no pain management.”

In PNN’s recent survey of nearly 6,000 patients, over 85 percent said the guideline has made their pain and quality of life worse. Nearly half say they have considered suicide because their pain is poorly treated. Many are hoarding opioids because they fear losing access to the drugs and some are turning to other substances – both legal and illegal – for pain relief.

‘Unintended Harms’

Not until this month did CDC acknowledge that its guideline was causing patient harm.

“CDC is working diligently to evaluate the impact of the Guideline and clarify its recommendations to help reduce unintended harms,” CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield wrote in an April 10 letter to a group of healthcare professionals. who had asked the agency to make a “bold clarification” of the guideline.

Redfield’s letter was sent the day after the Food and Drug Administration warned doctors not to abruptly taper or discontinue opioids. The FDA said it had received reports of “serious harm” to patients, including withdrawal, uncontrolled pain, psychological distress and suicide.    

“The clarification is an essential beginning because it is the CDC guideline that has been used by law enforcement agencies to surveil doctors and by major insurers and pharmacies in ways that deny pain patients access to opioid analgesia,” said Kate Nicholoson, a civil rights attorney and pain patient.  

It is the CDC guideline that has been used by law enforcement agencies to surveil doctors and by major insurers and pharmacies in ways that deny pain patients access to opioid analgesia.
— Kate Nicholson, Civil Rights Attorney

“Given the harms suffered by pain patients, a muscular, public-facing clarification from the CDC was needed. We hope that this action and the warning the FDA issued last week against abrupt tapering of pain patients will mark a beginning in protecting the rights of patients who use opioid medication appropriately to manage pain.” 

But other patient advocates wonder why it took so long for the CDC to act.

“It's gratifying to see CDC admit that its guideline is being misinterpreted and misapplied, as many of us have been warning for some time,” said Bob Twillman, PhD, former Executive Director of the Association of Integrative Pain Management. “It's a bit puzzling to me why it has taken them three years to do so, when many of us, myself included, told them within days of the guideline's issuance that these things were going to happen.

“Unfortunately, we've spent the past three years watching three dozen states violate CDC's stated intent that the guideline not be legislated, not to mention the untold numbers of insurance companies, health care systems, private practices, and pharmacy chains that have created a whole population of opioid refugees by misusing the guideline. Serious harms, including patient deaths, have resulted, and there is virtually no evidence that the intended effect of reducing prescription opioid overdose deaths has occurred, while overall opioid overdose deaths continue to climb rapidly.”

The New England Journal of Medicine is a respected publication with a wide reach among healthcare professionals, but it is not clear what CDC will do to caution states, insurers, pharmacies and law enforcement agencies about their misuse of the guideline.

“Unless Congress and the Executive Branch tell the DEA (and by association, state drug enforcement authorities and prosecutors) to stand down from persecuting doctors, I don't see any useful impact for this statement at all,” Richard “Red” Lawhern, PhD, of ATIP wrote in an email. “Doctors will continue to leave pain management and to desert their patients until they can be assured they will not be sanctioned, so long as they act in good faith to treat pain and manage their patients.” 

In recent months, federal prosecutors in Wisconsin and several other states sent letters to hundreds of physicians warning them that their opioid prescribing practices exceed those recommended by the CDC. The doctors were identified through data-mining of prescription drug monitoring programs (PDMPs), which have been weaponized to target physicians. 

“Practitioners were identified where they prescribed on average 90 MMEs (or more) per patient per day. That’s the threshold where the CDC and the Wisconsin Medical Examining Board say there is no real evidence to suggest that above that amount has any better effect on chronic pain,” a DOJ spokesperson told PNN.  

Just last week, a DEA task force charged dozens of doctors and other healthcare providers with illegal opioid prescribing. Prosecutors say more criminal cases are in the pipeline. 

"We have hyper-accurate data at the DEA and other agencies in the federal government where we are able to (use) that data and we can sort of pinpoint where these pills are being over-prescribed just by the population center in which they're being prescribed," said Jay Town, a federal prosecutor in Alabama.  "There are more doctors out there, there are more people working in clinics, and physicians’ offices, or pharmacies, or in compounding pharmacies, that we still have ongoing investigations or beginning investigations.” 

‘Achieve Widespread Adoption’ 

The CDC may have finally acknowledged the “unintended harms” caused by the guideline, but the data-mining and wholesale adoption of its recommendations are exactly what the agency outlined in a 2015 CDC memo obtained by PNN:   

“Efforts are required to disseminate the guideline and achieve widespread adoption and implementation of the recommendations in clinical settings. CDC is dedicated to translating this guideline into user-friendly materials for distribution and use by health systems, medical professional societies, insurers, public health departments, health information technology developers, and providers, and engaging in dissemination efforts.  

Activities such as development of clinical decision support in electronic health records to assist providers’ treatment decisions at the point of care, identification of mechanisms that insurers and pharmacy benefit plan managers can use to promote safer prescribing within plans, and development of clinical quality improvement measures and initiatives to improve prescribing and patient care.”

Can the CDC undo all the harm its “user-friendly materials” have caused over the last three years? Will states be advised to rollback their laws and regulations? Will insurers and pharmacies be told to stop limiting the dose of opioid prescriptions? And what about the patients who committed suicide? The CDC did not respond to a request for comment.

“That no one at CDC anticipated that the guideline would be misinterpreted and misapplied in this way is hard to swallow,” said Twillman. “I would have hoped that they would be vigilant for such occurrences, and taken action swiftly and effectively when they became apparent.”

When Will Forced Tapering of Opioids End?

By Lynn Webster, MD, PNN Columnist

“Larry” recently wrote to me asking for advice. He describes himself as "virtually crippled totally" after having his opioid medication cutback.

"I am being forced tapered and the PA I now have will not budge one inch on the weaning, as he calls it. I hate him. I have never had a more callous doctor in my life," Larry wrote.

"What does one do in my situation? Blow my brains out? A[n] intentional overdose? I have two beautiful dogs that depend on me and a son who needs me. I have to stay here on planet Earth although I want out of here so bad I beg God to kill me every morning noon and night. It is my daily prayer."

Unfortunately, Larry is only one of many patients who are struggling to be heard by their providers. Physicians are under government pressure to adhere to the CDC’s 2016 opioid prescribing guideline.

Although the CDC designed its guideline as voluntary, government agencies interpreted it as a mandate instead. The Drug Enforcement Administration has pursued doctors who prescribe a level of opioids that exceeds the guideline's recommended daily limit of 90 MME (morphine milligram equivalent), even when no patients have been harmed.

According to Maia Szalavitz, writing for Tonic, Dr. Forest Tennant was one of the few physicians who still were willing to prescribe high-dose opioids for the sickest pain patients. The DEA raided his California office and home, allegedly because the agency had reason to believe some of his patients were selling their medication.

There simply was no evidence of that. But as a result of the raid, Dr. Tennant retired from clinical practice.

Szalavitz wrote that the raid "terrifies pain patients and their physicians, who fear that it could lead to de facto prohibition of opioid prescribing for chronic pain and even hamper end-of-life care."

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Dr. Mark Ibsen in Montana had his license suspended by the state medical board for allegedly overprescribing opioids. According to Dr. Ibsen, the DEA warned him "he was risking his livelihood and could end up in jail if he kept prescribing." A judge later overturned the board’s decision.

As Dr. James Patrick Murphy, a Kentucky-based pain and addiction specialist, told the Courier-Journal, "many well-intended doctors are unfairly arrested 'all the time' in the hunt for those who recklessly contribute to patients' addictions and fatal overdoses."

As of this writing, The American University Law Journal plans to publish an alarming article by Michael Barnes, JD, about the raids on America’s top physicians.

Although few physicians are incarcerated for prescribing high dosages of opioids, many of them are threatened with losing their licenses to practice medicine. Doctors and pharmacists told a POLITICO survey that they felt enormous pressure to limit their prescriptions for painkillers. Their fear of the consequences of noncompliance with the CDC guideline exceeded their responsibility to treat patients with severe pain.

Second Thoughts About CDC Guideline

On April 1, the attorneys general of 39 states and territories wrote a letter on behalf of the National Association of Attorneys General to Dr. Vanila Singh of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The letter expressed concern with the draft report of the Pain Management Best Practices Inter-Agency Task Force, which recommends changes in the CDC guideline to end the forced tapering of patients.

The attorneys general said "it is incomprehensible that officials would consider moving away from key components of the CDC guideline." Additionally, they expressed their hope that the report would be revised "to clearly state that there is no completely safe opioid dose."

Yet on April 9, the Food and Drug Administration issued a medical alert warning doctors not to abruptly discontinue or rapidly taper patients on opioid medication, because it was causing “serious harm” to patients, including uncontrolled pain, psychological distress and suicides.

Now it seems the CDC may be moving in the same direction.

Dr. Daniel Alford, a Professor of Medicine at Boston University, wrote a letter to the CDC asking it to address the misapplication of its guideline with a "public clarification." He was writing on behalf of Health Professionals for Patients in Pain, and 300 healthcare professionals signed his letter.

The CDC's response, published on April 10, echoed the FDA's statement. CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield observed that the CDC guideline "offered no support for mandatory opioid dose reductions in patients with long-term pain." He reinforced the fact that the guideline was voluntary and that doctors should use their knowledge of their patients to determine which dosages were appropriate for them.

Dr. Redfield wrote that “CDC is working diligently to evaluate the impact of the Guideline and clarify its recommendations to help reduce unintended harms." And he agreed that "patients suffering from chronic pain deserve safe and effective pain management."

STAT News points out that the overzealous enforcement of the CDC guideline was indeed causing patients harm. "Denying opioids to patients who have relied on them — sometimes for years — may cause some to turn to street drugs, thereby increasing their risk of overdose," STAT warned.

According to The Washington Post, "Many patients have claimed that long-term use of the drugs is all that stands between them and unrelenting pain, and that they can take the medication without becoming dependent or addicted."

The CDC and the FDA now admit the guideline has been misapplied and mainstream media outlets are beginning to pick up the story. The question is: Will the DEA stop pursuing doctors who treat pain patients with levels of opioids that exceed the guideline's recommendations?

For Larry and other pain patients who have been forcibly tapered, the answer may be a matter of life and death.

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Lynn R. Webster, MD, is a vice president of scientific affairs for PRA Health Sciences and consults with the pharmaceutical industry. He is a former president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine and the author of “The Painful Truth.”

You can find Lynn on Twitter: @LynnRWebsterMD. 

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.