Patients at Ohio Hospital Have Surgery Without Opioids

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Would you want to go through a major surgery without the use of opioid pain medication?

Patients at an Ohio hospital are getting acetaminophen, gabapentin and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to manage their pain before and after colorectal operations – and their surgeons say the treatment results in better patient outcomes.

“Over 75 percent of our elective colorectal patients underwent surgery without requiring narcotic analgesics postoperatively, including after discharge,” says Sophia Horattas, MD, of Cleveland Clinic Akron General Hospital.  “During this time period our patient satisfaction scores improved as well as patients' perceptions of pain control.”

All eight general surgeons at Akron General adopted the non-opioid treatment protocol in 2016, applying it to patients who had elective colon operations. Prior to surgery, the patients were all educated about pain management, non-opioid analgesics, and the risks associated with opioids.

Researchers evaluated 155 of the patients and presented their findings this week at the American College of Surgeons Clinical Congress in Boston.

Overall, 83 percent (128) of the patients did not need opioid medication after their operations. Among those who did, use of opioids before surgery was often an indicator that they would want them again. Nine of the 15 patients who had prior experience with opioids used them again after surgery.

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Among the remaining 140 patients who did not use opioids before surgery, 85 percent (119) did not need opioid medication for pain relief.

The researchers found that patients who used opioid painkillers typically spent more time in the hospital; an average of 2.7 days vs. 2.3 days for the non-narcotic group.

“Patient education played a large role in protocol compliance, and patient satisfaction improved as they were able to avoid prolonged fasting, achieve improved pain control without the side effects of narcotic analgesia, and be discharged home earlier,” said Horrattas.

For pre-emptive analgesia before surgery, patients received one dose of acetaminophen, gabapentin, and the NSAID celecoxib (Celebrex).  In the operating room, patients received a nerve block and underwent anesthesia with the non-opioid pain relievers ketamine and lidocaine.   

Surgeons at Akron General have since adopted the non-opioid protocol for other major abdominal operations, such as bariatric procedures, gynecological and genital/urinary tract procedures, and liver and gall bladder operations.

“One of the great things about our protocol is its reproducibility.  Once we developed our program, we found that it could be standardized across departments with consistently reproducible results,” said Horattas.

Akron General’s protocol is similar to guidelines adopted by the American Pain Society (APS) for postoperative pain care. The APS also encourages the use of non-opioid medications such as acetaminophen, NSAIDs, gabapentin (Neurotin) and pregabalin (Lyrica).  

Akron General gets below average ratings for patient satisifaction from Hospital Compare, a Medicare survey that asks patients about their experiences during a recent hospital stay. The hospital received only two of a possible five stars, which places it in the bottom third of hospitals nationwide. Only 68% of Akron General’s patients said they would definitely recommend the hospital.

According to Healthgrades, 3 percent of the patients died after a colorectal surgery at Akron General, which is slightly below the national average for that procedure.

Opioid Addiction Rare After Surgery

In recent years, many hospitals have shifted away from routinely giving patients opioids during and after major surgeries -- even though it is rare for patients to become chronic opioid users.

A large Canadian study found that only 0.4% of elderly patients that were prescribed opioids while recovering from a heart, lung, colon, prostate or hysterectomy operation were still using them a year after their surgeries.

Another large study published this year in the British Medical Journal found similar results. Only 0.2% of patients who were prescribed opioids for post-surgical pain were later diagnosed with opioid dependence, abuse or a non-fatal overdose.

Long-term opioid use after dental surgeries is also rare. A recent study published in JAMA found that only 1.3% of teens and young adults who were given opioids after wisdom teeth removal were still being prescribed opioids months after their initial prescription.

The vast majority of patients still prefer opioids and perceive them as the most effective form of pain relief after surgery. In a recent survey of over 500 adults who were scheduled to have surgery, researchers at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia found that 77% expected opioids, 37% expected acetaminophen, and 18% expected a NSAID for pain relief.

"Patients often assume they will receive opioids for pain, believing they are superior, and therefore may pressure physicians to prescribe them after surgery," said lead author Nirmal Shah, DO, an anesthesia resident at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital.

"But research shows opioids often aren't necessarily more effective. Clearly, we need to provide more education to bridge that gap and help patients understand that there are many options for pain relief after surgery, including other pain medications such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen."

Do Drug Addicts Really Shoot Kratom?

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Our story last week about drug addicts in Ohio allegedly shooting kratom to get a “heroin-like high” angered many people who use the herbal supplement to treat chronic pain and other medical conditions.

“Who the hell is injecting kratom? These people are out of their minds,” wrote one reader.

“No one and I mean no one has ever injected kratom. Kratom is a wonderous, natural plant with many positive effects,” said Erik.

“It’s pathetic that lies like this are being spread about a natural leaf that helps with pain,” wrote Jennifer Greenwood. “Nobody buys kratom from heroin dealers.”

But that’s exactly what the Ohio Substance Abuse Monitoring Network (OSAM) reported earlier this year in its statewide assessment of drug abuse trends. OSAM called a kratom “a psychoactive plant” and claimed drug users in northeast Ohio were buying kratom from heroin dealers and then injecting it.

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“Participants reported that the most common route of administration for kratom is intravenous injection (aka “shooting”). Participants in the Akron-Canton region estimated that out of 10 kratom users, seven would shoot the drug and three would orally consume the drug (including drinking it as a tea),” OSAM said.

The OSAM report was cited by the Ohio Board of Pharmacy when it voted last week to classify kratom as a Schedule I controlled substance, alongside heroin, LSD and other dangerous drugs.

The board said kratom can cause hallucinations, psychosis, seizures, weight loss and insomnia, and cited six deaths in Ohio in which kratom was “the primary cause of death.”

The FDA and DEA have made similar claims about the health risks of kratom, but OSAM appears to be the first public agency to allege that kratom is taken intravenously. Repeated calls to OSAM for further information were not returned.    

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

“I don’t think most kratom users are injecting it.  Most users that I’ve ever talked to either mix it with a beverage, ‘toss and swish’, or take capsules,” says Jane Babin, PhD, a molecular biologist and consultant to the American Kratom Association, an organization of kratom vendors and consumers.

While skeptical that anyone would inject kratom, Babin says some addicts are desperate enough to try anything. She thinks the kratom sold by drug dealers in Ohio could be adulterated heroin.

“They describe kratom as a brown substance that resembles heroin.  So I can’t help wondering if what they were using was heroin or at least something other than kratom,” Babin wrote in an email to PNN.

“I can’t imagine that they would be mixing powdered leaf kratom with liquid, heating it and injecting it.  There’s too much insoluble plant matrix/cellulose.  If they did, I would expect problems unless they could filter it… which isn’t likely.  Injecting an ethanol extract directly would likely cause tissue damage, and I have to wonder how sterile any of it is.”

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But there is a case in the medical literature of a 29-year old Rhode Island man doing just that. He started using kratom to treat his opioid addiction, but eventually developed a tolerance for it and needed more.

“He was initially drinking Kratom tea daily, then several times daily, until he found a way to inject it intravenously,” researchers reported last year in the Journal of Toxicology and Pharmacology.

“He began buying Kratom extract in alcohol. He let the alcohol evaporate in a spoon, and then dissolved the remaining resin in water to inject. Subsequently, he began cooking off the alcohol with heat. Finally, the patient said that he was impatient, and began injecting the extract directly. At the time of presentation, he was buying Kratom extract from multiple online vendors, and injecting 1 ml of extract six times daily.”

The man eventually checked himself into an emergency room and sought treatment for kratom addiction.

“This case is an important reminder of the chronic nature of opioid addiction, which has a high rate of relapse. As Kratom becomes more popular in patients seeking abstinence from opiates, including heroin, such intravenous use may also increase,” researchers warned.

Adulterated Kratom

One of the co-authors of that study believes there is another potential risk. Like other food and herbal supplements, kratom products are essentially unregulated and there are little or no quality controls.

“The stuff that’s sold as kratom in the United States cannot be reliably proven to be kratom,” says Edward Boyer, MD, a Professor of Emergency Medicine at Harvard Medical School.   

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“There is evidence to suggest that some of the kratom sold in the United States is adulterated to make it more potent, to make it more powerful.”

Boyer says some kratom supplements have been found to have artificially elevated levels of 7-hydroxymitragynine, one of the naturally occurring alkaloids that make kratom act on opioid receptors in the brain. He suspects opioid drugs are also being used to boost kratom’s potency.

“The fact that a lot of kratom is adulterated is not surprising,” says Jane Babin.  “I suspect it is more prevalent in the stuff that’s being sold at smoke shops and gas stations.  This is a red herring when it comes to kratom, in the same way that Salmonella contamination is.  Both are ‘problems’ with simple solutions through regulation and oversight of kratom identity and purity.”

Instead of banning kratom, Babin says it should be regulated with a standards and certification program that would help keep adulterated products off the market.

Kratom is already banned in Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Vermont, Wisconsin and the District of Columbia. And there is speculation that the DEA may try again to classify kratom as a federal Schedule I controlled substance, which would make sales and possession of the plant illegal nationwide. The DEA withdrew a plan to ban kratom in 2016 after a public outcry.

Last week’s vote by the Ohio pharmacy board starts a months-long process of drafting new regulations for kratom, so a ban isn’t in effect yet. Public comments will be accepted until October 18. 

“If Ohio does ban kratom (and I hope they don’t), I predict that the already epic opioid overdose problem in that state will get worse,” says Babin. “It would be a shame for Ohio to indirectly prove the value of kratom in combating the opioid crisis when, after it is banned, overdose deaths and suicides increase.”

Ohio Banning Sales of Kratom and CBD  

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

At a time when many pain sufferers are turning to natural supplements to relieve their pain, the state of Ohio is moving to ban two of the most popular ones.

The Ohio Board of Pharmacy voted Monday to classify kratom as a Schedule I controlled substance alongside heroin, LSD and other dangerous drugs. The move came two months after the board issued an advisory warning that sales of CBD-infused products are illegal under Ohio’s new medical marijuana program.

The pharmacy board considers kratom – which come from the leaves of a tree that grows in southeast Asia – a “psychoactive plant” that can cause hallucinations, psychosis, seizures and death. State health officials have identified six recent deaths in Ohio in which kratom “was indicated as the primary cause of death.”

A recent report from the Ohio Substance Abuse Monitoring Network (OSAM) raised the demonization of kratom to a new level by comparing it to heroin — and falsely claiming it was common for people to inject kratom.

“Participants reported that the drug looks similar to brown powdered heroin, produces similar effects as heroin, and is primarily used by individuals subject to drug screening and by people addicted to heroin who use the drug to alleviate opiate withdrawal symptoms,” the OSAM report warns.

“Participants reported that the most common route of administration for kratom is intravenous injection (aka “shooting”). Participants in the Akron-Canton region estimated that out of 10 kratom users, seven would shoot the drug and three would orally consume the drug (including drinking it as a tea).”

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Monday’s vote by the pharmacy board starts a months-long process of drafting new regulations for kratom. Public comments will be accepted until October 18.  Over 1,500 comments have already been received, most of them from kratom users asking the board to keep the supplement legal.

"The findings of the Ohio Board of Pharmacy… parrot the false propaganda of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in their crusade to ban kratom," said Dave Herman, chair of the American Kratom Association, which represents kratom vendors and consumers. "The FDA has flooded state regulators, including the Ohio Board of Pharmacy with false claims and disinformation about the addiction profile and safety of this safe botanical plant.

“The nearly 5 million kratom consumers, and the tens of thousands of Ohio citizens, who safely consume kratom as a part of their health and well-being regimen should not have that freedom infringed upon by any regulation that is premised on bad science, inaccurate data provided by the FDA, and a deliberate attempt to manipulate the scheduling process by a federal agency.”

Kratom has been used for centuries as a pain reliever and stimulant, particularly in rural areas of Indonesia and Thailand.  In recent years, millions of Americans have discovered kratom and started buying it online or in “head shops” as a treatment for pain, addiction, anxiety and depression.

The Food and Drug Administration maintains that kratom is not approved for any medical use and insists on calling the plant an “opioid,” although its active ingredients are mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine, two alkaloids that act on opioid receptors in the brain.

Kratom is already banned in Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Vermont, Wisconsin and the District of Columbia. There is speculation that the FDA and DEA may also seek to classify kratom as a Schedule I controlled substance, which would make sales and possession of the plant illegal nationwide. The DEA withdrew a plan to ban kratom in 2016 after a public outcry.

CBD Sales Banned

Ohio’s crackdown on CBD sales is not as restrictive as the ban on kratom. CBD infused products such as edibles, tinctures and oils usually contain little or no THC – the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana that makes people high. Many people use CBD to relieve pain and help them sleep.

Under state law, marijuana is defined as “all parts of a plant of the genus cannabis” and only state-licensed dispensaries can sell products made with CBD (cannabidiol). There will eventually be 56 dispensaries across the state, although none are expected to open until later this year.

Some retailers pulled CBD products from their shelves after the warning from the pharmacy board, but many have chosen to sell off their supplies first. One retailer in Dayton predicts the price of CBD products will soar once they are no longer widely available.

“The prices, if they’re going to skyrocket, are going to hurt customers’ pockets,” Rabi Ahmad told WHIO.com. “Senior citizens mostly buy the CBD. The young kids, they don’t buy CBD at all.”  

A spokesman for the pharmacy board said there are no state plans to enforce the ban on CBD sales, although local law enforcement agencies could. Also unclear is how the ban will affect online sales and shipments from out-of-state vendors.

“The public should have uninhibited access to hemp-derived products no matter what state you live in. We will continue to produce these products and support our retailers and customers through this moment of confusion,” Nic Balzer, CEO of QC Infusion, a Cincinnati-based manufacturer of CBD products, told Cincinnati.com.

CDC: Heroin and Fentanyl Crisis ‘Rapidly Expanding’

By Pat Anson, Editor

A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention further documents the “rapidly expanding” death toll linked to heroin and illicit fentanyl – an overdose crisis that the CDC continues to blame on prescription opioids.

The agency reported in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report that nearly 13,000 American died from heroin overdoses in 2015, four times the number of heroin deaths in 2010.

Starting in 2013, deaths from illicitly manufactured fentanyl (IMF) also began to spike in the Northeast, Midwest and South -- what the agency calls the “third wave” of the overdose crisis.  Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine.

“The heroin and IMF drug market in the United States is rapidly expanding in the context of widespread prescription opioid misuse. As a result, opioid-involved deaths are cur­rently at peak reported levels,” the CDC reported.

“Increased heroin availability combined with high potency and relatively low price might have made heroin a viable substitute because its effects are similar to those of prescription opioids. The strongest risk factor for heroin use and dependence is misuse of or dependence on prescription opioids.”

But a second report from CDC that focused on more recent overdoses in Ohio tells a different story. Opioid pain medication plays a shrinking role in the Buckeye state’s overdose crisis.

heroin and fentanyl pills (DEA photO)

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In the first two months of 2017, the CDC estimated that at least 259 people died in Ohio from overdoses of fentanyl or fentanyl analogs – compared to just 12 deaths involving heroin, 64 deaths linked to opioid pain medication, and 75 deaths involving benzodiazepines, a class of anti-anxiety medication that includes Xanax.

“Evidence from the toxicologic analyses of unintentional overdose deaths in Ohio from the beginning of 2017 indicate the increasing and substantial role of IMFs, and the declining presence of heroin and pharmaceutical opioids in overdose fatalities,” the CDC said.

A recent report from the DEA found a similar trend in neighboring Pennsylvania. Over half the drug deaths in Pennsylvania in 2016 were linked to fentanyl and just 25 percent involved painkillers.

‘The Medical Board Will Come After You’

How are politicians reacting to these new reports about the changing nature of the overdose crisis?

In Ohio they’re tightening the rules on prescription pain medication. New guidelines that went into effect yesterday limit opioid prescriptions for acute pain to just seven days for adults and five days for minors. Patients suffering from cancer or chronic pain are exempt from the rules -- although many doctors have been reluctant to prescribe to those patients because they fear scrutiny. Ohio’s governor didn’t mince words when he warned prescribers that they’ll be held accountable for any slip-ups.

"If you're a dentist, doctor, I don't care who you are, you violate these guidelines, the medical board will come after you," Gov. John Kasich said in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "And you will be disciplined and perhaps even lose your license."

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who chairs President Trump’s opioid commission, uses similar language that pins the blame on doctors.

“Four out five new heroin addicts start on prescription opioids. This is a problem that’s not just starting on our street corners. Where it’s really starting is our doctor’s offices and hospitals,” Christie told CNN.

Jeffrey Singer, MD, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute,  warns that this sort of “frightening and imprecise rhetoric” often lead to poorly designed policies that only make the problem worse.

No matter how much regulators clamp down on the medical use of opioids the overdose rate grows. Yet the overwhelming majority of overdose victims are not patients receiving opioids for pain,” Singer wrote in Townhall.

“The opioid overdose problem requires a calm and reasoned approach, and a willingness to admit to previous policy mistakes. Rhetoric aimed at frightening the public does not foretell a propitious start.”

West Virginia Admits Pain Patients Suffering

By Pat Anson, Editor

As Ohio, New Jersey and other states move to put further limits on opioid prescribing, West Virginia is acknowledging that its own efforts may have gone too far.

This week the West Virginia House of Delegates unanimously passed a bill that would create a commission to review state regulations on opioid pain medication and report back to the legislature on ways to make them “less cumbersome.”

Senate Bill 339 calls the abuse of pain medication in West Virginia “a nearly insurmountable plague,” but recognizes that efforts aimed at curbing abuse and overprescribing have “resulted in unforeseen outcomes often causing patients seeking pain treatment to suffer from a lack of treatment options.”

“Effective early care is paramount in managing chronic pain. To that end, prescribers should have the flexibility to effectively treat patients who present with chronic pain. However, there must be a balance between proper treatment for chronic pain and the abuse of the opioids found most effective in its treatment,” the bill states.

The legislation calls for the Dean of the School of Public Health at West Virginia University to serve as chair of the commission, which is to be known as the Coalition for Responsible Chronic Pain Management. Other members of the panel will include a board certified pain specialist, three physicians, a pharmacist, a chiropractor and a pain patient. 

The coalition will meet quarterly to review regulations on physicians and pain clinics, and will advise the legislature on ways to “further enhance the provider patient relationship in the effective treatment and management of chronic pain.”

Because the bill was amended in the House, it now returns to the West Virginia Senate for approval.

In many ways, West Virginia was ground zero for the nation’s overdose epidemic, and was one of the first states to crackdown on pill mills and the overprescribing of pain medication. Fewer opioids are now being prescribed, but West Virginia still leads the nation with the highest overdose death rate in the country.

At least 844 people died of drug overdoses in the state in 2016, a record number, compared to 731 in 2015. As in other parts of the country, addicts in West Virginia have increasingly turned to heroin and illicit fentanyl, which are more potent, dangerous and easier to obtain than prescription painkillers. Over a third of the overdose deaths in West Virginia last year were linked to fentanyl. Most of the deaths involved multiple drugs.   

Ohio Tightens Opioid Regulations

In neighboring Ohio, Gov. John Kasich last week announced new plans to limit opioid prescriptions to just seven days of supply for adults and five days for minors. Doses are also being limited to no more than 30 mg of a morphine equivalent dose (MED) per day.

The new regulations, which are expected to take effect this summer, are more than just guidelines – they are a legal requirement for prescribers. Although only intended for acute pain patients, many chronic pain patients are worried they will lose access to opioid medication.

"Doctors are already feeling this pressure not to prescribe pain medications," Amy Monahan-Curtis told NBC News. "What I am hearing is people are already being turned away. They are not getting medications. They are not even being seen. "

Ohio has been down this path before. In 2012, it began a series of actions to restrict access to pain medication. By 2016, the number of opioid prescriptions in Ohio had fallen 20 percent, or 162 million doses.

As in West Virginia, however, the number of drug overdoses continues to soar. Ohio led the nation with over 3,000 drug overdoses in 2015, with many of those deaths linked to illicit fentanyl and heroin. The situation is so bad that some county coroners are storing bodies in temporary cold storage facilities because they’ve run out of room at the morgue.

Next month new regulations will go into effect in New Jersey that will limit initial opioid prescriptions to just five days of supply. Only after four days have passed can a patient get an additional 25 day supply.

That law is primarily intended for acute pain patients, but many chronic pain patients are worried they’ll be forced to make weekly trips to the doctor and pharmacy for their prescriptions, or not be able to get them at all.

“You can imagine my alarm and fear when I was told yesterday that I will likely have to have the dosage of my medications reduced soon,” said Robert Clayton, a New Jersey man who suffers from chronic back and neck pain.

“This is LUNACY. As a nurse who treats individuals with chronic pain and addiction issues, I can tell you these new laws are going to have catastrophic results. Most of the people abusing opiates and dying are the addicts who abuse heroin and other prescription drugs like benzodiazepines, not the chronic pain patients like myself and the other unfortunate souls who have a genuine need for these drugs through no fault of our own.”

According to a recent survey of over 3,100 pain patients by PNN and the International Pain Foundation, one in five pain patients are hoarding opioid medications because they fear losing access to them.