Readers Sound Off on Fibromyalgia Drugs

By Lana Barhum, Columnist

In my previous column, “Lyrica, Cymbalta and Savella: Do They Work?” I shared research studies and my own experience with the three medications approved for use in treating fibromyalgia.

Clinical studies on all three drugs don’t seem to offer enough creditable evidence that they are effective in managing fibromyalgia symptoms.  Moreover, they carry very harsh side effects, including weight gain, edema, nausea, headaches, vertigo, sleep issues, and changes in blood pressure.

My experience was similar. Lyrica, Cymbalta and Savella were ineffective for me, and had some tough and life-altering side effects.

It makes me wonder why doctors are still prescribing these medications and why the Food and Drug Administration continues to allow them to stay on the market. 

In 2012, German researchers aimed to assess the benefits and harms of Cymbalta and Savella in treating fibromyalgia.  Ten studies with over 6,000 fibromyalgia patients were reviewed. 

The results were that 22 percent of patients reported substantial relief and 21 percent had to quit treatment due to unpleasant side effects.

In reader comments on our website and Facebook page, many of you had comparable experiences:

“Tried all 3…nothing but weight gain and dizziness. No pain relief. Still haven't found anything that works.”

“I've had multiple spinal surgeries and fusions, and have severe nerve damage. And severe chronic pain. So, I've taken all three of these meds. Without success.”

I will not discount the fact that Lyrica, Cymbalta and Savella work for some people, but they appear to help only about 20 to 30 percent of patients who try them:

“I take one 60mg (of) Cymbalta a day, and it doesn't take away all the pain, but it does make it a bit more bearable.”

“I am using all three. There is relief but in moderation.”

“I have been on Lyrica since 2007 and do have relief of my Fibro pain. I am also on Cymbalta, a muscle relaxant and pain med that really (does) make a difference with my Fibro, arthritis and osteo pain.”

“Tried Savella, no good. Lyrica did not decrease pain enough to continue. I've used Cymbalta and had good results. Best results have been from using Gabapentin (Neurontin) since 1996, up to 3600 mg daily.”

“I'm back on Lyrica and Cymbalta. I know of the side effects with this medicine but it is the only option that remotely helps.”

The effectiveness of Lyrica and Cymbalta, in particular, has been hyped up with aggressive advertising by their manufacturers. And while research and patient experience show improvement on any of the medications is spotty at best, doctors continue to prescribe them.  This is yet another example where the medical field, in general, has not done a good job in treating, understanding or advocating for fibromyalgia patients.          

Side effects reported by readers to the three drugs include dizziness, mood changes, cognitive issues, swelling, sleep issues, weight gain, increased blood pressure, blackouts and more.  Many of these side effects have a detrimental effect on the daily lives of fibromyalgia sufferers – as if our lives were not difficult enough.

“Lyrica was the worst! I became a sleep-walking zombie. I was so out of it at night that I rarely made it to bed laying down. I would find myself in weird places asleep, such as with my head resting on the faucet in the bathroom sink. Or, I would sleepwalk and fall, like down the stairs. Certainly not good for helping my pain!”

“Lyrica did nothing for me. Cymbalta changed my personality completely. I became mean and hateful. When I asked the (doctor) about it, he's like, yeah that can happen.”

“I have taken Neurontin, Lyrica, Savella, and currently take Cymbalta. Neurontin gave me bad nausea, and the feeling of bugs crawling all over my body. Lyrica made me gain a lot of weight, and didn't help my pain at all. The Savella was the worst for me, it gave me very bad suicidal thoughts, so bad I had to stop taking it, it also never helped with pain.”

If only there was an ideal treatment for fibromyalgia -- one that would offer real relief from the worst symptoms and with few side effects.  But such a treatment could only come with a real understanding about the causes and symptoms of fibromyalgia, and I don’t feel medical research has gotten there yet.

The worst part of my experience with fibromyalgia is trying countless treatments to no avail. And there is nothing worse than being told, as I was, by a medical provider that if you expect real relief, you should also expect side effects and learn to cope with them. That statement shows what little understanding and empathy the medical community has about fibromyalgia, its process, and its difficulties.

I wish I had some good treatment advice to offer, but the fact is, like so many of you, I am exhausted. Years of trying medication after medication has left me weary of the medical community and the companies that manufacture fibromyalgia drugs. 

I have accepted defeat and refuse to try anything new.  Neurontin, Cymbalta, and muscle relaxers offer me some relief from nerve pain, depression, and muscle spasms, so I continue to take them.   Even so, I still live with widespread muscle and tissue pain, and a whole host of other symptoms fibromyalgia brings in its wake.

Lana Barhum is a freelance medical writer, patient advocate, legal assistant and mother. Having lived with rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia since 2008, Lana uses her experiences to share expert advice on living successfully with chronic illness. She has written for several online health communities, including Alliance Health, Upwell, Mango Health, and The Mighty.

To learn more about Lana, visit her website.

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.

McCain Calls for New Study of Veteran Suicides

By Pat Anson, Editor

Arizona Senator John McCain has reintroduced legislation that calls for a comprehensive review of veteran suicides by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), including the role of opioids and other prescription drugs in their deaths.

Veterans suffer from high rates of chronic pain, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). According to a recent VA study, an average of 20 veterans die each day from suicide, a rate that is 21 percent higher than the civilian population.

“The tragedy of 20 veterans a day dying from suicide is a national scandal,” said McCain. “Combatting this epidemic will require the best research and understanding about the key causes of veteran suicide, including whether overmedication of drugs, such as opioid painkillers, is a contributing factor in suicide-related deaths.”

If passed, the Veterans Overmedication Prevention Act would authorize an independent study by the National Academies of Sciences of veterans who died of suicide, violent death or accidental death over the last five years – including what drugs they were taking at the time of their death.

The bill specifically calls for a listing of “any medications that carried a black box warning, were prescribed for off-label use, were psychotropic, or carried warnings that include suicidal ideation.”

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN

Dozens of medications prescribed to treat chronic pain, depression or PTSD are psychotropic – meaning they affect a patient’s mental state. They include tranquilizers, sedatives, antidepressants and anticonvulsants such as Lyrica (pregabalin), Cymbalta (duloxetine), Neurontin (gabapentin), Xanax (alprazolam), and Valium (diazepam). Many of the drugs also have warning labels that they “may cause suicidal thoughts or actions.”

McCain’s bill may bring new attention to something that is rarely discussed in the national debate over opioids and the overdose epidemic: many of the drugs prescribed "off label” as alternatives to opioids raise the risk of suicide and have other side effects.

“I almost committed suicide myself after being prescribed Lyrica and Cymbalta. I went from 190 pounds to 300 pounds, and had suicidal thoughts almost from the outset,” Alessio Ventura wrote in a recent guest column for PNN. “After the Lyrica and Cymbalta were stopped, I stayed on OxyContin and had bi-weekly testosterone shots. I lost all of the weight and the suicidal thoughts went away. It was a miracle.”

Vietnam veteran Ron Pence was pressured by VA doctors to take Cymbalta for his chronic arthritis.

“The VA is really pushing these drugs that I would not give to a dog. They are a lobotomy in a pill. I WILL DIE BEFORE TAKING THEM. They take away your ability to think, speak and make decisions; and come with side effects such as permanent blindness, kidney stones and suicide, even in non-depressed people with no mental problems,” Pence wrote in a guest column.

“Even trying to get off this drug under a doctor's care can end in death for some people. Besides that, it’s nothing more than a sugar pill for the pain.”

As PNN has reported, the VA recently adopted new clinical guidelines that strongly recommend against the prescribing of opioids for chronic pain. The guidelines recommend exercise and psychological therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy, along with non-opioid drugs such as Neurontin. No mention is made that Neurontin and other non-opioid drugs raise the risk of suicide, only that they “carry risk of harm.”

McCain’s bill would require the National Academies of Science to study the medications or illegal substances in the system of each veteran who died; whether multiple medications were prescribed by VA physicians or non-VA physicians; and the percentage of veterans who are receiving psychological therapy and its effectiveness versus other treatments.

Few Drugs Effective in Treating Neuropathy Pain

By Pat Anson, Editor

Cymbalta and some other anti-depressants are moderately effective at relieving diabetic nerve pain, according to a new report by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ).

But researchers found little or no evidence that opioids, Lyrica, Neurontin and other widely prescribed medications are helpful in treating neuropathy pain.

Nearly 26 million Americans have diabetes and about half have some form of neuropathy, according to the American Diabetes Association. 

Diabetic peripheral neuropathy causes nerves to send out abnormal signals. Patients can feel stinging or burning pain, as well as loss of feeling, in their toes, feet, legs, hands and arms.

"Providing pain relief for neuropathy is crucial to managing this complicated disease," said lead author Julie Waldfogel, PharmD, of The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.

"Unfortunately, more research is still needed, as the current treatments have substantial risk of side effects, and few studies have been done on the long-term effects of these drugs."

In a systematic review of over 100 clinical studies published in the journal Neurology, AHRQ researchers found moderate evidence that the SNRI antidepressants duloxetine (Cymbalta) and venlaxine (Effexor) were effective in reducing neuropathic pain. Nausea, dizziness and somnolence were common side effects of the drugs.

The evidence was weaker for anti-seizure medication such as pregabalin (Lyrica) and oxcarbazepine (Trileptal). Common side effects from those drugs are weight gain, dizziness, headache and nausea.

While pregabalin works in the same way as gabapentin (Neurontin) -- both are often used to treat nerve pain -- the reviewers found gabapentin was not more effective than placebo. The seizure drug valproate and capsaicin cream were also found to be ineffective.

Oxycodone was not effective in treating neuropathy pain, and the evidence was weak for two other opioids, tramadol and tapentadol.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved only three medications -- duloxetine, pregabalin and tapentadol -- for diabetic nerve pain. However, many others drugs are prescribed “off label” for the disease.

"We hope our findings are helpful to doctors and people with diabetes who are searching for the most effective way to control pain from neuropathy," said Waldfogel. "Unfortunately, there was not enough evidence available to determine if these treatments had an impact on quality of life.”

Researchers noted that all of the studies were short-term, many for less than three months, and even the most effective drugs had relatively high rates of side effects. They say longer-term studies are needed so that adverse effects and the continued effectiveness of the drugs can be assessed.

Lyrica, Cymbalta and Savella: Do They Work?

By Lana Barhum, Columnist

If you have fibromyalgia, chances are your doctor has prescribed one or more of the three drugs approved for fibromyalgia by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).   It is also likely you have been disappointed when they didn’t work and by the side effects they caused.

I have tried Lyrica (pregabalin), Cymbalta (duloxetine) and Savella (milnacipran). My experience is they don’t work well and clinical research doesn’t offer up enough credible evidence that they do.

Patient feedback on these medications is actually more telling than recent studies.  Just check any fibromyalgia online forum and you will find your unpleasant experiences with these medications aren’t unique and shared by many.

Lyrica

Lyrica was developed by Pfizer as a treatment for epilepsy, but it is now widely prescribed for many different types of pain. Lyrica was approved by the FDA in 2007 as the first drug specifically for the treatment of fibromyalgia. Pfizer notes on its website that Lyrica “significantly relieves fibromyalgia pain and improves physical function” in fibromyalgia patients.  But does it really?

An initial study from 2005, with results published in Arthritis & Rheumatology, found Lyrica to be effective at relieving pain in only 29% of the 529 fibromyalgia patients in the study group. 

A major shortcoming of the study was that weight gain affected 10% of the study participants.

What was also interesting about the Arthritis & Rheumatology study is that a large number of participants dropped out due to Lyrica's side effects, which included edema, dry mouth, weight gain, infection, increased appetite and constipation.

A 2014 study of out of the University of Calgary, with results published in the journal Therapeutic Advances in Drug Safety,  also found that Lyrica causes edema and weight gain in some patients. 

Those side effects, especially the weight gain, aren’t worth it for a drug that doesn’t seem to work well for most people. You would get more benefit from dietary changes for fibromyalgia than with Lyrica - at least that was my experience. 

All I got from taking Lyrica was a 40 pound weight gain that took me two years to take off. I made the mistake of staying on it for too long, believing that it would one day work for me.

Cymbalta

Cymbalta was originally developed and marketed by Eli Lilly as a treatment for depression. You may even remember some of the commercials for it. In 2008, Cymbalta become the second drug approved by the FDA to treat fibromyalgia.

While Cymbalta doesn’t have stellar ratings amongst fibromyalgia patients, it does outperform Lyrica in my opinion. Initial trials, with results published in The Primary Care Companion to The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, show that over a third (36%) of study participants reported at least a 50% reduction in pain, based on a dosage of 60 mg once or twice per day.

A report published in the journal Expert Review of Clinical Immunology found that many participants dropped out of Phase I, II, and III trials of Cymbalta due to side effects, including nausea, headache, and sleep issues. 

Cymbalta has given me some pain relief over the years, but I have also made changes to my diet and lifestyle which may have helped as well.  If Cymbalta has helped me with anything, it is managing the depressed feelings fibromyalgia often leaves in its wake.

Savella

My Savella experience was far worse than my experiences with Lyrica and Cymbalta.  I could only stay on it for two weeks because the side effects were more than I could handle. Dizziness, vertigo, nausea, fatigue, and severe headache were a few of the side effects that stood out.  And I didn’t get any fibromyalgia pain or symptom relief.

Savella was developed by Forest Laboratories specifically for fibromyalgia and was approved by the FDA in 2009.

Like Lyrica and Cymbalta, studies confirm Savella’s poor performance. One double-blind study, reported in the journal Pharmacy & Therapeutics, found that only about one in four fibromyalgia patients (26%) were getting pain relief. 

The rate of discontinuation due to Savella’s side effects and treatment failure was also high -- nearly 43 percent.

In 2010, the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen petitioned the FDA to remove Savella from the market because it increased blood pressure in patients who didn’t have high blood pressure to start with. The group also argued Savella posed an increased risk for suicidal thoughts.

The FDA responded last year and denied Public Citizen’s petition, but said it would continue to monitor the safety of Savella.

My Thoughts

The only medication that I have seen that offers real improvement is Pfizer’s Neurontin (gabapentin), which is prescribed “off label” because it is not specifically approved to treat fibromyalgia by the FDA. Neurontin has helped my nerve pain and I also take muscle relaxers as needed, as I am frequent sufferer of muscle cramps and spasms. 

Studies have confirmed Neurontin’s effectiveness in treating fibromyalgia pain and improving sleep and fatigue. One double-blind study, with results published in Arthritis & Rheumatism, found that over half (51%) of fibromyalgia patients were finding relief with Neurontin.   

That’s not bad for a medication that was originally developed to manage seizures and whose formula has been the same since 1993. While it has helped me, I certainly understand Neurontin hasn’t helped everyone. There are even reports of Neurontin being abused by addicts. 

I am not sure why the makers of Lyrica, Cymbalta and Savella continue to market medications that don’t offer most people real results.  Yet, these medications remain available and doctors are still prescribing them to treat fibromyalgia. 

Let's just hope there are new fibromyalgia drugs on the horizon that actually work and give us real and reliable symptom and pain relief.

What has been your experience with Lyrica, Cymbalta and Savella?

Lana Barhum is a freelance medical writer, patient advocate, legal assistant and mother. Having lived with rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia since 2008, Lana uses her experiences to share expert advice on living successfully with chronic illness. She has written for several online health communities, including Alliance Health, Upwell, Mango Health, and The Mighty.

To learn more about Lana, visit her website.

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.

It's Time for Chronic Pain Patients to Act

By Alessio Ventura, Guest Columnist

I am a chronic pain sufferer who recently had multiple emergency surgeries due to sepsis infection after a shoulder replacement.

I have had 17 surgeries since 2008, including major back surgery, rotator cuff repair, biceps tendonitis, knee surgery and hernia surgery. Bottom line: my body is now wracked with arthritis and post-surgical pain.

I have tried several pain treatment modalities over the years, including Lyrica, Cymbalta, chiropractic, injections, NSAIDs, and acupuncture. The only effective treatment in my case has been the legitimate, professional application of opioid medicine by pain management physicians.

I have severe allergic reactions to NSAIDs, which kill 15,000 per year and send 100,000 to the hospital.  A friend of mine died from a stroke because of NSAIDs.

After my recent surgeries related to the shoulder replacement and subsequent infection, my wife had to travel to 25 different pharmacies before she finally found someone willing to fill my scripts for Oxycontin and Percocet.

This is not unusual though. Each month is a long trek to find pain medicine. What has happened due to government restrictions on opioids is a reduction in the supply of opioid medicine. The drug companies see the writing on the wall and are slowly trying to get out of the business.

ALESSIO VENTURA

ALESSIO VENTURA

At the same time, the government sets limits on how much a pharmacy can stock. That is according to pharmacists I have spoken to, but is denied by the DEA and FDA in response to letters I have written.

It truly is a nightmare. Each month, you have to go to pharmacy after pharmacy before you find a pharmacist willing to dispense the medicine, which pharmacists are under no legal obligation to provide. Many pain patients go into withdrawal each month as they search, while at the same time enduring intractable pain.

Most of us have tried every single alternative to opioids, but the anti-opioid hysteria paints a picture that there are better and safer therapies. That simply is not true. The only thing that works for many of us is an opioid-based medicine.

The madness is spreading. New Jersey governor Chris Christie has signed into law a bill that limits the first script for opioids to 5 days. After the four surgeries I’ve had since August, I was bedridden and could not visit a doctor after 5 days. They could not identify the infectious agent as they were unable to grow it in cultures. Eventually I was treated with 3 broad spectrum antibiotics, which in addition to killing the infection, also killed the "good" bacteria in my system, which caused severe fatigue and gastrointestinal side effects.

Many acute traumas, like when someone is shot or in a horrible car accident, will not provide for easy travel to visit a doctor to refill an opioid after 5 days, and it is currently illegal for a doctor to call in a script for controlled substances. This caused a run on opioid medicine in New Jersey as hospitals and surgery centers accumulated as much as they could, and with the cutback by drug companies, many people could not get their scripts filled.

My 85 year old mother in New Jersey had back surgery recently. My sister drove to 30 pharmacies -- starting in Bridgewater and working her way along Route 22 toward Newark -- and she was unable to get our mother’s scripts filled. My mother was in horrible pain and my sister had to rush her back to the ER. It was horrible. My sister broke down in tears at the ER as she explained her plight and the suffering of my mother.

There is a reason why army medics carry morphine to the battlefield. It is the only thing that has a chance to address severe acute pain.

In addition to supply limits, there is the prescription drug monitoring system. The government now tracks every single opioid that you legally acquire. If for whatever reason you find yourself away from home and cannot see your physician and you attempt to refill or get new pain medicine because of an injury, surgery or chronic pain, you will not be able to do it legally without first getting in touch with your doctor so they can coordinate care. Often this is not possible.

If you do get pain medicine while away without coordinating, you will be investigated and may be subject to arrest. Your doctor may also drop you from their practice. Your rights as a patient, especially your privacy rights and your right to seek pain relief, are now severely trampled.

Politicians are playing with fire as the opioid hysteria grows. More people will commit suicide rather than live with intractable pain, because politicians think they know more than doctors treating patients.

Who is going to listen to us? Politicians and some in the medical community conveniently conflate overdose data from the illegal use of opioids with legitimate use for intractable pain. They are also dismissive and try to tell us that we should try alternatives. For example, Lyrica is now being pushed by many, but it was developed only for a specific class of nerve pain, and possible side effects include suicide, weight gain, and a host of other things.

I almost committed suicide myself after being prescribed Lyrica and Cymbalta. I went from 190 pounds to 300 pounds, and had suicidal thoughts almost from the outset. When I told my doctors, they said, "Give it more time, the side effects will subside".

After the Lyrica and Cymbalta were stopped, I stayed on OxyContin and had bi-weekly testosterone shots. I lost all of the weight and the suicidal thoughts went away. It was a miracle.

There is a literal civil war occurring now between physicians who understand pain, and others who refuse to admit the truth about the efficacy of legitimate pain management via the use of opioids. Unless we all collectively speak up and scream loudly, meaning writing formal, respectful, but firm and forceful letters to our representatives, they will continue to step on us and cause our lives to be living hell.

It is time. Find out who your state and federal representatives are. Find out who your local, state, and federal health organization leaders are. Write formal letters, not emails or phone calls, to your representatives. After you write your letters, request meetings with your representatives and go to that meeting. Do whatever you can in a professional, respectful, but aggressive way in order to bring attention to our plight.

The time is now. Failure to act most assuredly means an end to our rights, a lifetime of pain, more illegal use of drugs, and in many cases, death.

Alessio Ventura was born in Italy, came to the U.S. at 17, and finished high school in Newark, New Jersey. He worked for Bell Laboratories for 35 years as a network and software engineer. Alessio has been married for 35 years and has 4 adult children, including triplets.

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

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Lyrica and Cymbalta Advised for Diabetic Neuropathy

By Pat Anson, Editor

New guidelines by the American Diabetes Association for the treatment of diabetic neuropathy strongly discourage the use of opioids to treat nerve pain, while recommending pregabalin (Lyrica) and duloxetine (Cymbalta).

Nearly 26 million people in the United States have diabetes and over half have some form of neuropathy, which often causes a painful stinging or burning sensation in the hands or feet.  Nerve pain is often the first symptom that prompts people to seek medical care before getting a diabetes diagnosis.

Researchers at the University of Michigan led a group of internationally recognized endocrinologists and neurologists, and teamed up with the American Diabetes Association (ADA) to craft a new position statement on the prevention, treatment and management of neuropathy. The ADA last released a statement on diabetic neuropathy in 2005.

"Our goal was to update the document so that it not only had the most up-to-date evidence, but also was easy to understand and relevant for primary care physicians," said lead author Rodica Pop-Busui, MD, a professor of internal medicine at Michigan Medicine Division of Metabolism, Endocrinology and Diabetes.

"Treatment of neuropathy pain is specifically relevant because, unfortunately, there has been much overprescribing of narcotics for neuropathic pain."

Although opioids like oxycodone and tramadol are effective in relieving nerve pain, they are not recommended by the ADA as a first, second or even a third-line treatment.

“Despite the demonstrated effectiveness of opioids in the treatment of neuropathic pain, there is a high risk of addiction, abuse, sedation, and other complications and psychosocial issues even with short-term opioid use. For these reasons, opioids are not recommended in the treatment of painful DSPN (distal symmetric polyneuropathy) before failure of other agents that do not have these associated concerns,” the guideline states.

Instead of opioids, the ADA recommends either pregabalin (Lyrica) or duloxetine (Cymbalta) as an initial treatment for neuropathic pain. Gabapentin (Neurontin) can also be considered.

PNN readers often complain of side effects from all three drugs – such as depression, fatigue, nausea, headache and weight gain -- yet the ADA statement only vaguely warns that their “adverse effects may be more severe in older patients.”

"Lyrica did help with my nerve pain but the side effects were intolerable and the withdrawal was absolute hell," said Laura.  "I gained 20 pounds in a month and was even more of a zombie than when I was on gabapentin. I had no personality, no interest in anything, and had completely lost motivation to do anything."

"I have been on Cymbalta a couple of years. It has helped overall with depression, anxiety and pain. I also can't miss a dose or try to quit cold turkey," wrote Rebecca Williams. "I become very dizzy, nauseated, night sweats, crazy dreams, electrical zaps in my head. I don't know how I would ever get off of it because the withdrawal symptoms are unbearable."

The ADA guidelines recommend that physicians try different therapies to prevent or slow the progression of diabetic neuropathy, most of which focus on controlling high blood sugar (glucose), which can cause irreversible damage to small nerve fibers. Insulin, regular exercise and a low-calorie, low-fat diet can help regulate glucose levels.

To see the ADA’s recommendations, click here.

The VA’s Opioid Policy Hurts Veterans Like Me

(Editor’s note: In 2015, Congress passed and President Obama signed into law legislation that requires the Veterans Administration to adopt the CDC’s “voluntary” opioid guidelines, which discourage the prescribing of opioids for chronic pain. Over the past year, the VA has implemented the guidelines throughout its healthcare system, which provides medical services to 6 million veterans -- over half of whom suffer from chronic pain. One of them is Ron Pence.)

By Ron Pence, Guest Columnist

I am a Vietnam veteran who turned to the VA health system in 2001, when I started having pain from polymyositis and chronic arthritis, the worst kind of arthritis caused by autoimmune disease. My own body was attacking my joints and muscles. They said CPK enzyme levels in my blood were very high and in danger of shutting down my kidneys.

Back then the VA cared about vets. I was started on pain meds and they moved me up the ladder as the pain increased.

The head of rheumatology started me on morphine because he said it was the only drug he had to offer. He was right. After 3 pain management visits, 3 more doctors agreed I was on the correct needed dose. X rays of the arthritis in my back ruled out chiropractic care.

I was on the same dose of morphine for 9 years. It worked well enough for me to function and to live alone. The VA promised to continue my opiate therapy as long as I did not break their rules.

After 5 years or so they came out with a new contract and forced us to sign it. I was told either sign it or you don’t gets your meds. I was never accused of breaking their rules and never have. I pointed out the new contract was totally in favor of the VA doing as they please and was signed under duress.

RON PENCE

RON PENCE

Now out of the clear blue they cut my dose in half over two months and they may cut it completely because I refuse to take terrible and dangerous psychiatric drugs with the worst side effects. Just search the Internet for “Cymbalta side effects” and you’ll see what I mean.

The VA is really pushing these drugs that I would not give to a dog. They are a lobotomy in a pill. I WILL DIE BEFORE TAKING THEM. They take away your ability to think, speak and make decisions; and come with side effects such as permanent blindness, kidney stones and suicide, even in non-depressed people with no mental problems. Even trying to get off this drug under a doctor's care can end in death for some people. Besides that, it’s nothing more than a sugar pill for the pain.

Why start something like that when what I was taking had no side effects for me and was working fine? I am sure the pills they are pushing will end in a lot more deaths and terrible disabilities and suffering.

My companion almost died after taking Enbril. The VA doctors write prescriptions for Enbril, Humira, etc. as if they were candy. Four shots a month cost $2,000. Far more dangerous than opiates, but someone lines their pockets and the drug companies make over $10 billion a year on them. There is more here than meets the eye.

The CDC in Atlanta says their opioid prescribing guidelines are just that, guidelines. Doctors at the VA must not be smart enough to know what a guideline is. They’re pushing very dangerous, expensive and destructive drugs to replace opioids. Pray and try to find a substitute that works. Doctors sit and lie about what the guidelines say. The stress of not knowing if you are going to be cut off completely is as bad as the pain.

Since the big cutback in my pain medication, I am far less functional. Just standing up 30 seconds to snatch my clothes out of the washer puts me in hollering pain and I fall back into my wheelchair. Cutting the meds even makes it hard to get on the toilet. I am 70 and live alone. My family brings me food to keep me from starving most of the time. I have lost over 90 pounds.

This is going to mean the nursing home for a lot of people like me and I cannot stand the thought of living or existing in a nursing home. Karma is going to get a lot of people making these bad decisions.

I don’t take complaints to Washington because I am old and an 8 mile trip to Walmart wipes me out for a couple of days. This is a fight for the younger guys.

We are in one of the most advanced countries in the world medically, yet the doctors and politicians will not use that knowledge to ease pain and suffering. We have to find a solution.

Ron Pence lives in Florida. Ron enlisted in the Air Force in 1963 – at the age of 17 -- and served his country for 6 years.

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

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Two Drug Combo More Effective for Fibromylagia

By Pat Anson, Editor

Two drugs commonly prescribed for fibromyalgia – Lyrica and Cymbalta – are more effective in treating the disorder when used together, according to a new study by Canadian researchers.

Lyrica (pregabalin) is an anti-seizure nerve drug, while Cymbalta (duloxetine) works primarily as an anti-depressant. Both have been used for years to treat fibromyalgia -- a poorly understood disorder characterized by deep tissue pain, fatigue, insomnia, and mood swings. Until now no one has studied how effective the two drugs could be when used in combination.

"We are very excited to present the first evidence demonstrating superiority of a duloxetine-pregabalin combination over either drug alone," said lead author Ian Gilron, MD, Director of Clinical Pain Research at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.

“The results of this trial suggest that combining pregabalin with duloxetine can safely improve outcomes in fibromyalgia including pain relief, physical function and overall quality of life.”

This was a small study – only 41 fibromyalgia patients participated – and the researchers admit that larger trials are needed to see if the results can be replicated. The new research was published in the journal Pain.

The study is the latest in a series of clinical trials -- funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research -- which Gilron and his colleagues have conducted on combination therapies for chronic pain conditions. By studying promising drug combinations, they hope to show physicians how to make the best use of current treatments.

"The value of such combination approaches is they typically involve drugs that have been extensively studied and are well known to health-care providers," says Gilron.

Patients in the study were divided into three groups that either took pregabalin alone, duloxetine alone or a combination of the two for six weeks. Doses were gradually increased in the study to the maximum tolerated dose. When used in combination, patients could only tolerate relatively low doses of pregabalin and duloxetine, suggesting the drugs have an overlap effect when used together.

“The pharmacological diversity of a pregabalin-duloxetine combination is a mechanistically appealing feature that increases the likelihood of additive analgesic actions although there could similarly be some additive adverse effects with this combination. Even at significantly lower doses during combination therapy, superior global pain relief during combination therapy would suggest a greater additive effect for pain reduction than for side effects,” said Gilron.

The biggest side effect of the pregabalin-duloxetine combination was drowsiness, and the researchers admit that reduced physical activity caused by drowsiness could have contributed to pain reduction. 

Patients have long complained of other side effects from pregabalin and duloxetine when used separately, such as weight gain, nervousness, and brain fogginess. Many have also reported severe withdrawal symptoms and “brain zaps” when trying to get off the drugs. The study apparently didn’t address those issues. 

Lyrica (pregabalin) is one of Pfizer’s top selling drugs and generates over $5 billion in revenue annually. In addition to fibromyalgia, Lyrica is approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat chronic pain associated with epilepsy, shingles, diabetic peripheral neuropathy, and spinal cord injury. The drug is also prescribed “off label” to treat lumbar spinal stenosis, the most common type of lower back pain in older adults.

Cymbalta (duloxetine) generated sales of $5 billion for Eli Lilly until its patent expired in 2013 and cheaper generic versions of duloxetine became available. Cymbalta is approved for fibromyalgia, neuropathy, osteoarthritis, depression and anxiety.

Only one other medication – Savella – is approved by the FDA for fibromyalgia, but it is not as widely used as the other drugs.

Fibromyalgia was initially thought to be a musculoskeletal disorder, but research now suggests it's a disorder of the central nervous system - the brain and spinal cord. Researchers believe that fibromyalgia amplifies painful sensations by affecting the level and activity of brain chemicals responsible for processing pain signals. It affects twice as many women as men.

Let’s Talk About Sex, Baby — and Chronic Pain

By Crystal Lindell, Columnist

The thing that nobody tells you about Cymbalta is that it takes a machine gun to your sex drive. Seriously. When I was on it, I was so repulsed by sex that I started to think maybe I was legitimately asexual. 

I mean, when the doctor hands you the prescription, it would be nice if they threw in something like, “BTW, you’re never going to want to make passionate love while you’re on this medicine.”

But of course, doctors never tell you stuff like that. And God forbid they give you a handout of some sort that maybe mentions it. No, they just leave you to Google “asexual” at 1 a.m. on a Tuesday night when you realize you’re identifying a little too much with Sheldon on the Big Bang Theory.

Don’t get me wrong, I have definitely been in such tragic levels of pain, that if someone had asked me if I wanted to give up sex so I could feel better, I wouldn’t have even thought twice about cutting off my own vagina and handing it over. 

But the thing is nobody asked me. They didn’t tell me I might have to make that sacrifice when they put me on Cymbalta. So I didn’t even know it was happening. And that’s when you get to some pretty dark places. 

Thankfully, I’ve since gone off Cymbalta, and my sex drive came back like a freight train. 

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t other issues related to sex and chronic pain.

Like when you have stabbing rib pain on your right side, so you can only tolerate sports bras, and then he goes to unhook the back, and it kills the mood because there is no hook in the back of a sports bra. And he’s mad that you’re dressed like someone planning to run a 5K, and then you’re mad that he’s mad that you’re dressed like someone planning to run a 5K, and so you just leave.

Or when he wants to cuddle, and you have to explain that, “Sorry, I can’t lay on my right side because when I do it feels like someone is jack hammering into my bones through the mattress. Hope that’s not a deal breaker!”

Not to mention the fact that when you’re in physical pain, the last thing you feel is sexy. And you most certainly don’t feel like having anyone touch you ever. 

First, there’s just the literal pain that can come from someone passionately throwing you against the wall, or even a pillow top mattress for that matter. When you feel like you always have a broken rib, even passionate love making can make you wince. 

Then, there’s the fact that the pain probably keeps you from showering as often as most Americans believe is normal, which means you probably smell, which means you’re probably not feeling very romantic. 

And of course, there’s the side effects from the medications, which make you gain weight, sleep all day, and zone out in front of YouTube videos about makeup while you simultaneously lose the ability to actually wear makeup. 

Not to mention the fact that it’s just really hard to make love to someone, while you yell things like, “OH GOD! OH GOD! OH GOD!  IF YOU TOUCH MY RIGHT SIDE AGAIN I’M GOING TO STAB YOU TO DEATH!’ or “YES! YES! YES! I NEED YOU TO AVOID MY CHEST AREA AT ALL COSTS!”

That’s the kind of stuff that can turn an evening of “Netflix and Chill” into an evening where you actually watch Netflix and chill. 

But even with so many things working against the sex lives of those with chronic pain, that doesn’t mean people should give up. 

For one, that old saying about how, “You can have great sex without having a great relationship, but you can’t have a great relationship without great sex,” is actually pretty true in my experience. Having sex is an important part of being a healthy couple. Of course, that doesn’t mean partners shouldn’t be understanding of the situation, and our pain levels. What it does mean is that avoiding sex, regardless of how legitimate the reasons for doing so are, will likely put a strain on your love life. 

Also, sex is just a good thing to have in general. It helps your mood, it can be a great pain reliever and stress reducer. And, you know, it’s fun.

So I don’t think patients should just resign themselves to the idea that having chronic pain means giving up good sex for the rest of their lives.

Unfortunately, I don’t have magical solutions to offer people with chronic pain struggling to work sex back into their daily life. But there are a couple things you can at least try.

Frist, there’s always the obvious “talk to your doctor” advice. Yes, I know that conversation can be awkward — both for the patient and the physician. If you’re up for the conversation though, I definitely recommend it. Your doctor might be able to recommend other medications that don’t kill your sex drive, some less painful positions or other techniques to help you out.

In the end though, I honestly think the best thing you can do is be open about the issues without whomever you’re making love to. Just like with anything, talking about what’s going on usually does the most good.

And if you both decide that maybe you can try to get a wire-free bra with a hook in that back because that’s what he’s into, as long as he promises to never touch your right boob, then great! Or, if you decide that having sex just isn’t worth the pain, then that’s great too.

After all, there’s always Better-than-Sex cake in a pinch.

Crystal Lindell is a journalist who lives in Illinois. She loves Taco Bell, watching "Burn Notice" episodes on Netflix and Snicker's Bites. She has had intercostal neuralgia since February 2013.

Crystal writes about it on her blog, “The Only Certainty is Bad Grammar.”

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.

What Alternatives do Pain Patients Have?

By Pat Anson, Editor

When the Food and Drug Administration last week endorsed the CDC’s controversial guidelines to limit opioid prescribing, the agency promised it would prioritize development of non-opioid alternatives for chronic pain relief.

“We are also working closely with industry and the National Institutes of Health to develop additional alternative medications that alleviate pain but do not have the addictive properties of opioids,” said Dr. Robert Califf, FDA Deputy Commissioner for Medical Products and Tobacco, who co-authored a “special report” on the FDA's new opioid policies the New England Journal of Medicine.   

“The FDA has approved non-opioid medications for treatment of various chronic-pain syndromes, including gabapentin (Neurontin), pregabalin (Lyrica), milnacipran (Savella), duloxetine (Cymbalta), and others, and a number of promising development programs are in the pipeline. But we need more. The FDA will use all the tools at its disposal to move these alternatives along as expeditiously as possible, while remaining mindful that all medicines have risks.”

The four drugs mentioned by Califf all have mixed track records, and many chronic pain sufferers have told Pain News Network the medications either don’t relieve their pain or have intolerable side effects.

“Gaba (Neurontin) did nothing for me and Lyrica seemed to help a very little with nerve pain but it made me very shaky, as if I drank a gallon of coffee,” wrote Pam Cushion.

“The side effects of Cymbalta were more than I could bear. I got terrible pains in the skin on my upper back and shoulders, and it made me feel downright awful,” said Tracy W.

“As opiate medications are lowered, my Lyrica dosage has gone up. It does have side effects like weight gain and next day fogginess,” wrote Kenneth McKenna. “I look for physicians to use other medicines in a similar fashion, (due to of the opioid restrictions) which may turn out to be a worse problem than the opioids themselves.”

Both Lyrica and Neurontin are coming under scrutiny in the UK because of increasing reports they are being abused by addicts to get high. Since 2012, over 60 overdose deaths in the UK have been linked to pregabalin and gabapentin.

Researchers in British Columbia also recently warned about the limitations of gabapentin, pregabalin, duloxetine, and venlafaxine (Effexor) when used to treat neuropathic pain.

“The best available evidence now indicates that as few as one in ten people can expect much pain relief from these drugs,” said Dr. Aaron Tejani, a Clinical Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences and a member of the University of British Columbia's (UBC) Therapeutics Initiative Working Group. “Many people who improve are getting a placebo effect, or would improve in time without any drug treatment.  Others end up sedated, with impaired thinking, balance disturbance, dry mouth, or other side effects that cause more harm than good.”

The drugs may be ineffective for most patients, but Tejani says many doctors continue to prescribe them because of an exaggerated belief in their effectiveness. From 2005 to 2014, the number of British Columbians receiving pregabalin increased by 17 fold, according to UBC Therapeutics. Over three times as many prescriptions for duloxetine were written during that period, while gabapentin prescriptions nearly doubled. The use of venlafaxine, mostly for depression or anxiety, has been stable.

“Increasing evidence suggests that drugs have relatively little useful role for most patients with chronic pain. We should be much more cautious about prescribing them, and warn patients about their side effects,” said Dr. Tom Perry, a Clinical Assistant Professor in the Department of Anesthesiology, Pharmacology and Therapeutics and Chair of the UBC Therapeutics Initiative team.

Califf Nomination Still Stalled

The FDA’s sudden reversal on many of its opioid policies may have been intended to reduce opposition in the U.S. Senate to Robert Califf’s nomination as the agency’s new commissioner. Early indications are that strategy may not have worked.

“I will continue to strongly pressure the FDA to strengthen its oversight of opioid medications and will continue to push for the strongest possible framework for drug approval to ensure that the agency doesn’t simply continue to approve ever stronger and more deadly opioid medications under this new process,” said Sen. Joe Manchin (D) of West Virginia, one of five senators who are blocking Califf’s nomination.

Manchin has been particularly critical of the FDA’s failure on several occasions to accept the advice of its advisory committees, which have been reluctant to support the approval of new opioids. Last week Califf promised to appoint new advisory panels to review every new opioid that doesn’t have abuse deterrent properties.

“I believe the FDA should use the advisory committee’s expert advice for all opioid medications, including abuse-deterrent formulations, which are just as addictive and can be just as deadly as non-abuse deterrent opioids. The FDA also needs to commit to adhering to the recommendations that the advisory committee puts forward,” said Manchin.

Sen. Edward Markey (D) of Massachusetts also believes the FDA policy changes “fall short of what is needed.”

“While this is a good start, even more is required to ensure the FDA’s approval process protects Americans from the dangers of opioid painkillers,” Markey said in a statement. "Whether an opioid is abuse deterrent or not hasn’t prevented tens of thousands of people who have had their wisdom teeth removed or experienced lower back pain from getting addicted to these painkillers. That is why the FDA must change its decision not to seek expert advice about the risks of addiction before it approves abuse-deterrent opioids.”