What the JAMA Opioid Study Didn’t Find

By Roger Chriss, Columnist

A recent opioid study published in the Journal Of the American Medical Association (JAMA)  evaluated pain management in patients with hip and knee osteoarthritis and low back pain.

The study by VA researcher Erin Krebs, MD, and colleagues found that “treatment with opioids was not superior to treatment with nonopioid medications for improving pain-related function over 12 months.”  

That finding was widely and erroneously reported in the news media as meaning that opioids are ineffective for all types of chronic pain.

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But the most fascinating result of the study – the one not being reported -- is what wasn’t found. The 108 people in the study who took opioids for a year did not develop signs of opioid misuse, abuse or addiction, and did not develop opioid-induced hyperalgesia – a heightened sensitivity to pain.

And no one died of an overdose.

This is significant because it runs counter to commonly held beliefs in the medical profession about the risks of prescription opioids. Here are a few recent examples:

“Opioids are very addictive and their effectiveness wanes as people habituate to the medication,” Carl Noe, MD, director of a pain clinic at the University of Texas Medical Center wrote in an op/ed in The Texas Tribune.

Don Teater, MD, a family physician in North Carolina, also believes that people on long-term opioid therapy experience dose escalation, which leads to hyperalgesia. “Opioids cause permanent brain changes,” Teater told USA Today.

Krebs herself has made similar comments. "Within a few weeks or months of taking an opioid on a daily basis, your body gets used to that level of opioid, and you need more and more to get the same level of effect,” she told NPR.

But the Krebs study didn’t see any of that happen.

Krebs and colleagues closely monitored the 108 people in the opioid arm of the study, using “multiple approaches to evaluate for potential misuse, including medical record surveillance for evidence of ‘doctor-shopping’ (seeking medication from multiple physicians), diversion, substance use disorder, or death.” They also had participants complete the “Addiction Behavior Checklist” and assessed their alcohol and drug use with surveys and screening tools.

What did Krebs find in the opioid group after 12 months of treatment?

“No deaths, ‘doctor-shopping,’ diversion, or opioid use disorder diagnoses were detected,” she reported. “There were no significant differences in adverse outcomes or potential misuse measures.”

Health-related quality of life and mental health in the opioid group did not significantly differ from the non-opioid group – and their anxiety levels actually improved.  

These are observational findings in the study. They were not a part of what Krebs and colleagues were specifically trying to measure. As the study notes: “This trial did not have sufficient statistical power to estimate rates of death, opioid use disorder, or other serious harms associated with prescribed opioids.”

ERIN KREBS, MD

ERIN KREBS, MD

But they are valuable observations. They note what didn’t happen in the study. Over 100 people were put on opioid therapy for a year, and none of them showed any signs of dose escalation or opioid-induced hyperalgesia, or any evidence of opioid misuse, abuse or addiction.

Krebs told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that this “could reflect the fact that the study did not enroll patients with addiction histories, and because the VA provided close supervision to all participants during the yearlong study.”

In other words, Krebs and colleagues used an opioid prescribing protocol that achieved an admirable level of patient safety. Their approach is similar to what many pain management practices currently pursue and what the CDC and various state guidelines recommend: Risk assessment before initial prescribing and careful monitoring over time.

The Krebs study provides rare and detailed observations of what happens when people are put on long-term opioid therapy. A lot of what is claimed about dose escalation, opioid-induced hyperalgesia, and misuse or abuse didn't happen at all.

This outcome demonstrates that long-term opioid therapy can be safe and effective, and may be useful in treating other chronic conditions, from intractable neuropathies to painful genetic disorders. That’s worth reporting too, isn’t it?

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Roger Chriss lives with Ehlers Danlos syndrome and is a proud member of the Ehlers-Danlos Society. Roger is a technical consultant in Washington state, where he specializes in mathematics and research.

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.

Is JAMA Opioid Study Based on Junk Science?

By Pat Anson, Editor

You may have read about a research study published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), which compared the effectiveness of opioid and non-opioid medications in treating chronic pain. 

The yearlong study of 240 patients found that opioids were not superior to pain relievers like acetaminophen and ibuprofen in treating chronic back pain or hip and knee pain caused by osteoarthritis.  Pain improved for 41% of the patients who took opioids, compared to 54% in the non-opioid group.  

It’s an interesting study – one of the few to look at the effectiveness of any pain relievers long term – but some critics are questioning the study’s methodology and the alleged anti-opioid bias of its lead author, Erin Krebs, MD, a researcher for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

First let’s look at some of the news coverage the study is getting.

“Opioids Don’t Treat Chronic Pain Any Better Than Ibuprofen” reads the headline in Newsweek, an article that never mentions the JAMA study was limited to patients with back pain or osteoarthritis.

“Opioids Don’t Beat Other Medications for Chronic Pain” was the headline in NPR.com, while the Chicago Tribune went with “Opioids no better than common painkillers for treating chronic pain.”

The Tribune article included a quote from one of the co-authors of the CDC opioid guidelines. "The fact that opioids did worse is really pretty astounding," said Roger Chou, MD. "It calls into question our beliefs about the benefits of opioids."

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Notice the news coverage strongly suggests that opioids are ineffective for all types of chronic pain – not just back pain and osteoarthritis.  Patients living with chronic pain from arachnoiditis, trigeminal neuralgia or some other intractable pain condition would probably disagree about that. And they'd find the idea of taking ibuprofen laughable, if not infuriating. But no one asked for their opinion.

Also unmentioned is that opioids are usually not prescribed for osteoarthritis or simple back pain, which are often treated with NSAIDs and over-the-counter pain relievers.

So, what JAMA has published is a government funded study designed to look at a treatment (opioids) that most people with back pain and arthritis never actually get.

“You've been had by anti-opioid advocates disguising their advocacy as science.  Krebs is well known in professional circles for this kind of distorted advocacy junk science,” wrote patient advocate Red Lawhern, PhD, in a comment submitted to the Philadelphia Inquirer after it published a misleading headline of its own, “Prescription opioids fail rigorous new test for chronic pain.”

“I suggest that you retract your article.  In its present form, it is propaganda not fact,” said Lawhern, a co-founder of the Alliance for the Treatment of Intractable Pain (ATIP). “Opioids have never been the first-line medical treatment of choice in lower back pain or arthritis. That role is served by anti-inflammatory meds, some of them in the prescription cortico-steroid family.  NSAIDs have a role to play, recognizing that they are actively dangerous in many patients if taken at high doses for long periods.  Hundreds of people die every year of cardiac arrest or liver toxicity due to high-dose acetaminophen or ibuprofen.” 

Who is Erin Krebs?  

Dr. Krebs is an associate professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School and a prolific researcher at the VA Medical Center in Minneapolis.

She was also an original member of the “Core Expert Group” – an advisory panel that secretly drafted the CDC’s controversial opioid guidelines while getting a good deal of input from the anti-opioid activist group Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP). The guidelines recommend that opioids not be prescribed for chronic pain.

Krebs also appeared in a lecture series on opioid prescribing that was funded by the Steve Rummler Hope Foundation, which coincidentally is the fiscal sponsor of PROP. 

Some of her previous opioid research has been controversial. In a study published last year in the Annals of Internal Medicine, Krebs reviewed 67 studies on the safety and effectiveness of opioid tapering. Most of the studies were of poor quality, but nevertheless Krebs came to the conclusion that pain levels and the quality of life of patients “may improve during and after opioid dose reduction.”

ERIN KREBS, MD

ERIN KREBS, MD

“This review found insufficient evidence on adverse events related to opioid tapering, such as accidental overdose if patients resume use of high-dose opioids or switch to illicit opioid sources or onset of suicidality or other mental health symptoms,” wrote Krebs.

PROP founder Andrew Kolodny, MD, read the review and liked it, tweeting that “dangerously high doses should be reduced even if patient refuses.”

But forced opioid tapering is never a good idea, according to a top CDC official.

“Neither (Kreb’s) review nor CDC's guideline provides support for involuntary or precipitous tapering. Such practice could be associated with withdrawal symptoms, damage to the clinician–patient relationship, and patients obtaining opioids from other sources,” wrote Deborah Dowell, MD, a CDC Senior Medical Advisor, in an editorial also published in the Annals of Internal Medicine. 

As for Krebs’ contention that there is “insufficient evidence” of adverse events associated with opioid tapering, that notion may be put to rest next month when the VA releases a new study showing that tapering has led to a growing number of suicides by veterans.

In a summary of the findings, which will be presented at the Rx Drug Abuse & Heroin Summit, VA researchers report that “opioid discontinuation was not associated with overdose mortality, but was associated with increased suicide mortality.”  

Who and what should we believe in the neverending debate about opioids? PNN columnist Roger Chriss wrote about Krebs’ opioids vs. non-opioids study last year, when the initial reports of its findings came out. Roger said prescribing decisions are best left to physicians who know their patients’ medical conditions – not researchers, regulators or the news media.

“In reality, there is no ‘versus’ here. Opioids and NSAIDs are both valuable tools for chronic pain management. To pretend that one is inherently better than the other is to miss the essential point: Both work and should be available for use as medically appropriate,” Roger wrote.