Researchers Call Kratom a Public Health Threat

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

The herb kratom poses a public health threat and should not be sold as a dietary supplement, according to a team of researchers who say kratom should be regulated like a prescription drug because it has “opioid-like” qualities.

"Although it is not as strong as some other prescription opioids, kratom does still act as an opioid in the body," said William Eggleston, PharmD, a professor of pharmacy practice at Binghamton University in New York. "In larger doses, it can cause slowed breathing and sedation, meaning that patients can develop the same toxicity they would if using another opioid product.

“Our findings suggest kratom is not reasonably expected to be safe and poses a public health threat due to its availability as an herbal supplement.”

Eggleston is lead author of a recent study published in the journal Pharmacotherapy that looked at the growing number of calls about kratom to U.S. Poison Control Centers. In recent years, millions of Americans have discovered kratom and use it to self-treat chronic pain, addiction, anxiety and depression.

Eggleston and his colleagues identified 2,312 kratom exposures in the National Poison Data System (NPDS) from 2011 to 2018, with 935 cases involving kratom as the only substance.

The chief complaint for many of the calls was that kratom caused agitation, tachycardia (rapid heartbeat), drowsiness, vomiting and confusion. Infrequent but serious side effects included seizure, withdrawal, hallucinations, respiratory depression, coma, and cardiac or respiratory arrest.

KRATOM CALLS TO U.S. POISON CONTROL CENTERS

SOURCE: AMERICAN ASSOCIATION OF POISON CONTROL CENTERS

‘Significant Toxicity’

“Despite kratom’s growing popularity as a safe and natural self-treatment option for patients with OUD, our findings suggest there are concerns for significant toxicity. Reports of kratom exposures to the NPDS are rising and have already been associated with serious opioid toxicities, including seizures, agitation, and death,” researchers reported.

“According to the United States Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, herbal and dietary supplements must contain ingredients that are reasonably expected to be safe. Our findings repudiate the idea that kratom meets this criterion. Kratom’s opioid effects put patients at risk for withdrawal, respiratory depression, and death.”

But critics say calls to poison centers are anecdotal, misleading and a poor choice for research.

“The data drawn from the Poison Control Centers are notoriously unreliable, inasmuch as they are anecdotal reports from the public that are gathered and reported in an unscientific fashion,” said Max Karlin, a spokesman for the Kratom Information & Resource Center. “In the absence of good data, you just end up with a garbage-in, garbage-out situation.”

“All the Eggelston paper shows is that the anti-kratom bias is deeply entrenched in conventional medical, pharmacological and government sectors,” said Jane Babin, PhD, a molecular biologist, patent lawyer and consultant to the American Kratom Association (AKA). “It seems to be more of the same unscientific attack on kratom. I don’t see anything in this that warrants their conclusion.

“AKA now estimates that there are 16 million kratom users in the U.S. based on data from Indonesia on how much kratom is exported to the U.S. annually. 2,312 exposures out of 16 million users is a pretty low percentage of users who have anything to report to poison control.”

The 2,312 calls about kratom over an 8-year period pale in comparison to calls about other substances. In the first six months of this year alone, over 13,400 calls were made to U.S. poison centers about children ingesting hand sanitizers or laundry detergent packets.

Kratom Scheduling

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. As a dietary supplement, kratom is loosely regulated in the United States, although federal agencies are engaged in a protracted public campaign against its use.

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The FDA says kratom is addictive, has opioid-like qualities and is not approved for any medical condition. The agency has also released studies showing salmonella bacteria and heavy metals contaminating a relatively small number of kratom products. 

The CDC recently linked kratom to dozens of fatal overdoses -- although multiple substances were involved in nearly all of those deaths.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has recommended to the DEA that kratom be classified as a Schedule I controlled substance – alongside heroin and marijuana — which would effectively ban it nationwide.

“At some level, we do need to have better control over it,” says study co-author Lewis Nelson, MD, a Professor of Emergency Medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. “We know that (kratom) has two big uses out there. One of them is for people to get high and the other one is to treat opioid withdrawal. Those are the real reasons people use it.

“Whether its an opioid or not an opioid, people use it do things that they would typically do with opioids, like pain, get high, and treat withdrawal. I think empirically we know it has enough of an opioid-like character that it’s being marketed and used that way.”

Lewis said kratom should be scheduled as a controlled substance, but not under Schedule I. He thinks it may be more appropriate to classify kratom as a Schedule II or III drug, where it could still be available by prescription.

“I would like to see that. If they could show this drug has benefits and we could understand and moderate the risk, I don’t see why it couldn’t be used like any other drug,” said Lewis, who is a longtime critic of opioid prescribing.

Let’s create a safe product and let’s get it appropriately scheduled. Have it available by prescription. I don’t have a problem with that.
— Dr. Lewis Nelson

“Prove it works. Let’s create a safe product and let’s get it appropriately scheduled. Have it available by prescription. I don’t have a problem with that.”

But getting kratom approved by the FDA as a prescription drug would require years of clinical studies. Pharmaceutical companies may be reluctant to fund research on a natural substance that they may not be able to patent. And kratom users, long accustomed to buying it online or in smoke shops, dislike the idea of needing a doctor’s prescription.

In a 2016 PNN survey of over 6,400 kratom users, nearly 98 percent said they wanted kratom to remain available as a dietary supplement.  Over 70 percent said pharmaceutical companies should not be allowed to produce kratom-based drugs.  And nearly three out of four dispute the notion that it’s possible to get high from kratom.  

Lewis remains skeptical that people are not using kratom recreationally and that it should remain on the market as a dietary supplement.  

“I find it a little disingenuous to say we should leave this potentially unsafe drug on the market unregulated, just because some people already use it,” he told PNN.

Indonesia May Ban Kratom Exports

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

A possible ban on the growth and export of kratom in Indonesia is raising alarm among kratom users in the U.S. and around the world.  About 95% of the world’s supply of kratom comes from Indonesia, where the herbal supplement has become a lucrative cash crop.

Kratom leaves are harvested from 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 started using kratom to treat pain, addiction, anxiety and depression.

Kratom advocates say the U.S. Food and Drug Administration – which opposes the use of kratom for any medical condition – has been lobbying the Indonesian government to ban kratom farming. Current plans by the Indonesian Ministry of Health call for a 5-year transition period to allow kratom growers to shift to other crops.

“If this ban is allowed to go into effect, it will effectively end consumer access to kratom in the United States, and the FDA won’t have to do anything more to declare victory in the War on Kratom,” said C. M. “Mac” Haddow, a lobbyist for the American Kratom Association (AKA), a group of kratom vendors and consumers.

“Even if some black-market kratom gets into the United States after the Indonesian ban goes into effect, it will be so expensive that only the uber-rich will be able to afford it. And it will likely be extremely dangerous to consume because there will be no standards on growing, harvesting, and shipping.”

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FDA Denies Involvement

An FDA spokesman said the agency has “inquired” about kratom in Indonesia, but denied making any effort to have it banned.

“The FDA has inquired to understand the current status of kratom under Indonesian law. However, the FDA has not advocated either formally or informally about a change in law in Indonesia or any other country relative to kratom,” the spokesman said in an email to PNN.

The AKA sent a delegation to Indonesia last month to meet with the Ministry of Health and other government officials. Among the attendees was Duncan Macrae, the founder of Kratom.com and one of the first commercial growers of kratom in Indonesia. Macrae told PNN the initial meeting went well.

“When we left Jakarta we were given the green light that there would always be a legitimate path to export kratom even though the Indonesian government will almost definitely regulate and make kratom illegal for domestic use in Indonesia,” Macrae wrote in an email. “Unfortunately, since there was some (in my opinion) unnecessary outreaching to other departments such as the Agriculture & Quarantine department and also the department of trade, this has stirred up another hornet’s nest.” 

According to the AKA, the Ministry of Agriculture sent a memo in the past week to various agencies in the Indonesian government recommending the ban on kratom be formalized at all levels of government.  

Macrae fears that kratom will also be classified as an illegal controlled substance in Indonesia, which would effectively ban its growth and export.  

Was the FDA involved? For sure yes! Unfortunately, this went through the U.S. embassy in Jakarta as well.
— Duncan Macrae, Kratom Supplier

“This means it has no scientific or medicinal use and will even prevent further research from being done on the plant in Indonesia,” said Macrae. “Was the FDA involved? For sure yes! Unfortunately, this went through the U.S. embassy in Jakarta as well.” 

A leading Indonesian politician called on the government to ignore the “world health mafia” and conduct research on the risks and benefits of kratom before banning it.

"Once again the government does not play a ban without doing deep professional research. It is tantamount to throwing away the nation's own assets. In the end Indonesia will only be an importer of finished products from kratom leaves," Daniel Johan, Deputy Chairperson of the House of Representatives, told a local news agency. "Indonesia must master its downstream products so that it is truly beneficial for the people of Indonesia and the world, so that we do not even enter the format of world health mafia war."

Kratom is already banned for domestic use in Indonesia, although the export of raw kratom product is allowed. In 2016, about 400 tons of kratom were shipped every month from Indonesia’s top growing region -- worth about $130 million annually, according to a report from Agence France-Presse. Most of those exports went to the U.S.

The FDA has linked kratom to dozens of fatal overdoses -- although multiple substances were involved in nearly all of those deaths. The FDA has also found salmonella bacteria and heavy metals in a relatively small number of kratom products. 

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. Currently, the DEA doesn't even list kratom in its annual report on drug threats. 

The AKA is planning to send another delegation to Indonesia this month to lobby against a kratom ban.

The Push for Stem Cell Censorship Has Begun

By A. Rahman Ford, PNN Columnist

A new study published in journal Stem Cell Reports, entitled “How to Peddle Hope: An Analysis of YouTube Patient Testimonials of Unproven Stem Cell Treatments,” looks at over a hundred videos by stem cell patients posted on YouTube. 

The study appears to have an underlying anti-democratic agenda – to shame YouTube and other internet platforms into removing positive patient testimonials about stem cell therapy (SCT).  Indeed, the use of the pejorative term “peddle” in the article’s title immediately undermines the study’s credibility.

This research epitomizes how propaganda can masquerade as scientific research, and how data can be twisted to meet its masters’ agenda.

The study comes on the heels of a recent federal judge’s decision that the FDA could regulate stem cells made from adipose tissue – a patient’s own fat cells. Although SCT critics generally praised the ruling as a victory for government oversight, outlets like the Washington Post lamented that it would likely not deter clinics from offering the therapy. 

A New York Times article accused the FDA of not acting until patients were harmed, and using enforcement actions that consist only of warning letters without any real teeth.  

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STAT News even criticized the National Institutes of Health for allowing stem cell clinics to “co-opt” the nation’s clinical trial database.

Stem cell critics have apparently realized that the three previous stages of their vilification campaign have failed. These stages were:

  1. Vilify the patients:  Promote the condescending narrative that patients are desperate, ignorant and too stupid to research stem cell therapy for themselves and decide whether it is best for them.

  2. Vilify the clinics: Stem cell clinics are run by shady charlatans who engage in duplicitous business practices that take advantage of desperate, ignorant and pitiful Americans by selling them “unproven” products that couldn’t possibly help them.

  3. Vilify the federal government: Federal agencies have not acted quickly or robustly enough to enforce the regulations that govern regenerative medicine, thus tacitly approving the growing “wild west” of clinics offering SCT.

The Push for YouTube Censorship

Critics now appear to be setting their sights on a fourth vilification stage.  In their desperation, they have decided to take a more authoritarian turn towards internet censorship.

The new study’s authors examined 159 YouTube testimonials from patients who had SCT for ALS, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, cerebral palsy and spinal cord injury.  Not surprisingly, they found that most of the videos were published by providers and nearly all discussed the benefits of SCT in improving pain, overall health and quality of life. 

The authors concluded the YouTube testimonials “may be a potent marketing tool” and “are likely to have a wider reach and significant impact on influencing health behavior.” 

The article’s final sentence reveals the authors’ true motive: “Adopting multiple approaches, including patient education, enhancing patient treatment options, and regulatory oversight, are required to make a significant dent in reducing the number of clinics providing unproven SCTs.”

Setting aside the numerous, glaring and egregious methodological shortcomings of the study, the more important issue is one of broader public policy.  These authors appear to be implicitly advocating that YouTube and other internet sites censor videos that are “misleading” or “deceptive” or not published by “reputable organizations.” 

And who or what is to determine whether any particular video meets this criteria?  Wired published an article with the ominous headline “YouTube Testimonials Lure Patients to Shady Stem Cell Clinics,” implicitly calling on YouTube to take action. The notion isn’t farfetched. YouTube has been in the news a lot recently for censoring videos, using nebulous criteria and subjective standards.   

Apparently, SCT critics have jumped on the YouTube censorship bandwagon.  It’s a wagon that seems to claim a new victim every day, and its victims are usually those who threaten the status quo.  Unfortunately, it’s a wagon that travels the pothole-riddled road of authoritarianism.  It’s a road patrolled by people in strange uniforms, with sophisticated and articulate weapons, who dispense a vicious propaganda, and who always claim to have your best interest at heart.

Please make sure to call, email and/or tweet your state and federal legislators to voice your support for the availability and affordability of stem cell therapy.  The people who suffer with pain and disability will not be silenced and will not be censored.  Our democratic voice will be the response to their authoritarianism.

A. Rahman Ford.jpg

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

Rahman lives with chronic inflammation in his digestive tract and is unable to eat solid food. He has received stem cell treatment in China. 

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.

FDA Warns Kratom Vendors

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has issued two more warning letters to kratom vendors – Cali Botanicals of Folsom, California and Kratom NC of Wilmington, North Carolina – for making unproven claims that kratom can treat pain, addiction, depression, anxiety and other medical conditions.

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 -- including many who have lost access to opioid medication -- and found it to be an effective treatment.   

The FDA, however, considers kratom an unapproved drug that shouldn't be used to treat any medical condition.

“Despite our warnings, companies continue to sell this dangerous product and make deceptive medical claims that are not backed by science or any reliable scientific evidence,” said acting FDA Commissioner Ned Sharpless, MD.

“As we work to combat the opioid crisis, we cannot allow unscrupulous vendors to take advantage of consumers by selling products with unsubstantiated claims that they can treat opioid addiction or alleviate other medical conditions.”

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What makes kratom dangerous? Sharpless cited FDA studies that found salmonella bacteria and heavy metals in a relatively small number of kratom products.  Kratom has also been linked to dozens of fatal overdoses -- although multiple substances were involved in nearly all of those deaths.

The FDA said Cali Botanicals and Kratom NC were using websites and social media to make unproven claims about kratom's ability to treat medical conditions. Cali Botanicals, for example, makes these claims about kratom's benefits:

  • “Kratom is able to reduce the pain levels that reach the brain in a way that’s very similar to opioid drugs.”

  • "Kratom is seen as life-saving by former addicts, who found kratom to be the only way they could overcome their addictions."

  • “Consumption of kratom can reduce pain and swelling to an injury.”

  • “Addicts can wean themselves off of their addictions by replacing their drugs with kratom. It has similar effects as opioids, but without the same dependency. Kratom also helps with the withdrawal symptoms.”

  • “Kratom is used for energy, to increase attention/focus, to relax, and also to treat pain and addiction."

  • “Some researchers have even claimed that kratom can protect you against cancer!”

With the exception of that claim about preventing cancer, those are the same benefits that many kratom users report anecdotally.

"For over two years now I have enjoyed drinking my kratom tea a couple of times a day. It helps promote my mood and energy like a cup of coffee would. The tea also relieves my aching joints and muscles, making my chronic fatigue and pain much more bearable," Kim DeMott wrote in a recent PNN column.  

"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," fibromyalgia sufferer Mary Ann Dunkel wrote in another guest column.

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. Currently, the DEA doesn't even list kratom in its annual report on drug threats. 

Judge Rules FDA Can Regulate Stem Cells

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

A federal judge has ruled that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does have the legal authority to regulate stem cells made from adipose tissue – a patient’s own fat cells.

The decision is a blow to U.S. Stem Cells, a Florida-based company that produces and markets stem cells derived from body to treat rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and other chronic illnesses. At least three of its patients were blinded after having the stem cells injected into their eyes while being treated for macular degeneration.

The FDA has been struggling in recent years to rein in the fast-growing stem cell industry, which often markets procedures that the agency considers unproven and potentially dangerous.

“Cell-based regenerative medicine holds significant medical opportunity, but those in this field who do not operate in compliance with the law can potentially cause serious harm to patients,” acting FDA Commissioner Ned Sharpless, MD, said in a statement.

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“The FDA has advanced a comprehensive policy framework to promote the development and approval of regenerative medicine products. But at the same time, the FDA will continue to take action — such as issuing warning letters or initiating court cases — against clinics that abuse the trust of patients and endanger their health with inadequate manufacturing conditions or by manufacturing and promoting products in ways that make them drugs under the law, but which have not been proven to be safe or effective for any use.”

The FDA sent a letter to U.S. Stem Cell nearly two years ago warning the company that its laboratory safety standards were inadequate and could lead to contamination.  A year later, the agency sought a permanent injunction against the company, which led to Monday’s court decision by U.S. District Judge Ursula Ungaro.  

“The clinic and its leadership have put patients at serious risk through their disregard of the law and prior FDA warnings. This decision today is a victory for the FDA’s work to stop these bad actors and to protect patients,” said Peter Marks, MD, director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research.

U.S. Stem Cell and its chief science officer Kristin Comella have yet to respond to the judge’s ruling. In the past, they have argued the FDA doesn’t have the legal authority to regulate cells derived from a patient’s own body tissue.

The Los Angeles Times has reported that Comella’s purported PhD in “stem cell biology” was issued by an unaccredited online university in Panama. Three-year doctorate degrees can be purchased at Panama College of Cell Science for less than $9,000. The college has been vigorous in defense of its most famous graduate.

“Through Dr. Comella’s leadership, she and her team have trained and certified more than 700 physicians worldwide in adult stem cell therapy,” the college said recently in a blog post.

KRISTIN COMELLA

KRISTIN COMELLA

“So it is understandable that against this backdrop, America’s most gifted adult stem cell clinician, Kristin Comella, should be singled out for attack, criticism, and personal smearing in an effort to chill and silence her activities, if not outright ban them. A federal lawsuit was even filed against her to stop her treatment of patients and to slow the progress of adult stem cell therapy.”

In addition to the lawsuit against U.S. Stem Cell, the FDA is also seeking a permanent injunction to stop California Stem Cell Treatment Center and Cell Surgical Network Corporation from producing cellular products for stem cell clinics without FDA approval.

The agency has also issued warning letters to a number of clinics, including one recently sent to R3 Stem Cell of Scottsdale, Arizona warning that its treatments for Lyme disease, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, stroke, kidney failure and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) are not FDA approved.  

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.” 

Have We Reached the Stem Cell Tipping Point?

By A. Rahman Ford, PNN Columnist

One morning while watching TV, I was astonished by one of the commercials that ran.  It was an ad for stem cell therapy.  That was when it dawned on me – stem cells had finally hit the mainstream.  It was no longer a procedure of myth and mystery that people saw as strange or taboo.  It was now real, obtainable and, dare I say, normal. 

The public discourse over the legitimacy of stem cell therapy (SCT) has taken a clear turn in recent years, away from fearmongering and misrepresentation, and toward medical innovation and less restrictive federal regulation. 

Stem cell therapy may have officially reached its tipping point.

The term “tipping point” was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell.  He describes it as “that one dramatic moment in an epidemic when everything can change all at once.”  For Gladwell, certain large-scale social phenomena – which he terms “epidemics” or “contagions” – take hold through small, incremental changes that tend to happen in a hurry.  

Gladwell asserts that, like medical epidemics, “tipping point” social epidemics obey three laws:

  1. Law of the Few: They are driven by a handful of people

  2. Stickiness Factor: At a certain point a message “sticks” in the memory

  3. Power of Context: Human beings are sensitive to their environment 

Three groups of people facilitate successful social epidemics:

  1. Mavens, who possess the specific information or knowledge

  2. Connectors, who bring people together and disseminate that information

  3. Salesmen, who persuade others to believe the information. 

It’s ironic that Gladwell uses examples of medical epidemics to describe a theory that could be applied to a modality with the curative power of SCT. The increasing and diverse number of patient testimonials online shows how SCT has reached its tipping point.

Roar Africa CEO Deborah Calmeyer used her own stem cells to repair a bone chip on a toe she injured falling down a flight of stairs at a Manhattan restaurant.  After two years, her pain was gone and the cartilage completely healed. 

Grandmother Andrea Coleman of Charlotte, NC used her own stem cells to heal her arthritis pain, pain which she described as “10+.”  Less than two months after the therapy, her pain was at a “2 or a 3.”  And how did she find the clinic?  Her husband did a simple online search.

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High school wrestlers like JD Peralta of small-town Clovis, California used SCT to heal a torn ACL and meniscus. 

South Florida mother Marty Kelly credits SCT with curing her non-verbal autistic son Kenneth.  At eight years old, Kenneth couldn’t talk or reread and was still in diapers. Now, after nine treatments, 17-year-old Kenneth is about to graduate high school.  How did Marty Kelley find out about SCT?  She “stumbled” across a little boy in Orlando who also benefitted from the therapy. 

Finally, Superman actor Dean Cain used SCT to heal chronic pain from a knee injury he suffered playing college football.  He even invited DailyMailTV cameras to record the procedure.  Cain also credits SCT with controlling his father’s Parkinson’s Disease. 

When Superman becomes an SCT connector and salesman, you know you’ve reached the tipping point.

Small Clinics and Large Hospitals Tip the Scales

More and more clinics are offering SCT.  This proliferation is occurring despite the restrictive FDA regulatory regime that dictates stem cells should be “minimally manipulated” and only for approved treatments. Clearly, the medical professionals are not overly concerned with FDA policing and investigation. This is similar to marijuana which, while still illegal under federal law, is legally sold in dispensaries in dozens of states without fear of a crackdown.  

This perception that the FDA has adopted a permissive, laissez-faire stance is telling and evidences another SCT tipping point.

Not only is the number of small clinics increasing, but the availability of SCT in large, mainstream hospitals is further evidence of a tipping point.  As Liz Szabo points out in Kaiser Health News, major hospitals like the Swedish Medical Center – Seattle’s largest non-profit health provider – have begun offering SCT with infomercial-like advertisements.  The Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic and the University of Miami have also entered the field to provide options to patients who have exhausted mainstream remedies. 

“We have patients in our offices demanding these treatments,” said Dr. Shane Shapiro of the Mayo Clinic. “If they don’t get them from us, they will get them somewhere else.”

A serious argument can be made that the SCT tipping point has indeed been reached.  Gladwell’s theory fits the SCT movement well.  Although the SCT movement’s initial push was driven by the few, as Gladwell conceptualized, it is the stories of the many that drive it now. 

Context has also been important. The pain and suffering of countless Americans has provided the context that has forced more clinics and hospitals to provide SCT.  And progress has been quick. Just nine years ago I had to go all the way to China for my SCT.

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

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

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

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.