Living in the Real World of Pain Care

By Ann Marie Gaudon, PNN Columnist

For years now, chronic pain patients in Canada and elsewhere have heard nothing but disingenuous and downright nonsensical information about opioid medication.

It’s beginning to feel like a cheese grater scraping on my very real nerves. No facts or just wrong facts from the government, regulators and the media. Are all of these players living in an alternate reality?

Rewind back to June 2, when pain patient and advocate Paul arranged a meeting between several physicians and pain patients. You can find out the whole story, as Paul told it to me, on this YouTube video. The sole doctor attending the meeting had one objective: To present (via PowerPoint no less) how “responsible and non-biased” leaders and physicians are when it comes to pain patients.

Indeed, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario put out “A Message to Patients Living with Chronic Non-Cancer Pain.” It tells us it is never appropriate to abandon a patient on long-term opioid therapy or abruptly cut off or threaten to cut off a patient’s medication” and that “patients taking prescribed opioids should not be stigmatized.”

In its guideline for accepting new patients, the college also tells us that “physicians must accept new patients in a manner that is fair, transparent and respectful…”

However, doctors live in their own reality, far apart from their college. In the real world of pain care where I reside, doctors everywhere and every day: 

  • Refuse to prescribe opioid medication for their patients

  • Abandon pain patients altogether because they need opioid medication

  • Drastically taper opioid medication against their patients’ wills and to the detriment of their health and quality of life

  • Stigmatize and discriminate against patients, who are labeled as addicted and in need of treatment

  • Refuse to accept new pain patients if they need opioid medication 

This picture of a doctor's window in Ontario reflects that reality:

thumbnail.jpg

What we experience in the real world doesn’t have any relation to what we are being told. I recently listened to a fascinating interview with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Christopher Hedges, who spoke about a “post-truth phenomena.”

“The facts don’t matter, we’re bombarded with lies…. Once facts are interchangeable with opinions, then it becomes an Alice in Wonderland kind of experience where nothing makes sense,” said Hedges

We are now living that experience, complete with mythology. The myth about pain patients is that they are cared for by an ethical medical establishment according to their own unique needs, and also recognized as valuable citizens deserving of human rights by a responsible government.

Mythologies were created by ancient peoples trying to make sense of the world. If you live in an alternate reality, you would need to create these narratives so that your distorted reality made sense to you.

For those of us whose bodies are pained and whose minds remain firmly planted on this earth, the myths about opioids are misrepresentations at best, pure hypocrisy and deceit at worst.

Sometimes peoples of the past got it wrong, but sometimes they got it right. Seventeenth century philosophers used the fundamental nature of knowledge and their reality to make sense of the world. Voltaire cautioned us not to take the myths too seriously.

"Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities."

headshotJuly2018circle.jpg

Ann Marie Gaudon is a registered social worker and psychotherapist in the Waterloo region of Ontario, Canada with a specialty in chronic pain management.  She has been a chronic pain patient for 33 years and works part-time as her health allows. For more information about Ann Marie's counseling services, 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 represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Studies Warn of Pregabalin Deaths

By Pat Anson, Editor

Two new studies – one in Canada and one in Australia – should give pause to patients who use opioids and pregabalin (Lyrica), an anticonvulsant medication increasingly prescribed for fibromyalgia, neuropathy and other chronic pain conditions. Both studies found a number of overdose deaths that involve – but were not necessarily caused -- by pregabalin.

The Canadian study, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, looked at over 1,400 patients in Ontario on opioid medication from 1997 to 2016 who died from opioid-related causes. Another group of over 5,000 surviving opioid patients was used as a control group.

Researchers found that patients who were co-prescribed opioids and pregabalin had a significantly higher risk of an overdose.

The risk of death was over two times higher for patients receiving opioids and a high dose of pregabalin (over 300mg) compared to those who took opioids alone.

Patients on a low or moderate dose of pregabalin also had a heightened risk, although not as large.

Lyrica2.jpg

Researchers say pregabalin has a sedative effect and may interact with opioids in ways that increase respiratory depression. Few doctors and patients are aware of the risk, even though over half of Ontario residents who begin pregabalin therapy are also prescribed an opioid.

"There is an important drug interaction between opioids and pregabalin that can lead to increased risk of fatal overdose, particularly at high doses of pregabalin," lead author Tara Gomes, PhD, of the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences (ICES) and St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto, told MedPage Today.

"Clinicians should consider carefully whether to prescribe opioids and pregabalin together. If they decide that both medications are clinically appropriate, they should start with low doses and monitor their patients closely."

Lyrica (pregabalin) and Neurontin (gabapentin) are both made by Pfizer and belong to a class of anticonvulsant nerve medication called gabapentinoids. Sales of gabapentinoids have tripled in recent years, in part because of CDC prescribing guidelines that recommend the drugs as alternatives to opioid medication.  

U.S. health officials have only recently started looking into the misuse and abuse of gabapentinoids, which are increasingly used by addicts to enhance the euphoric effects of heroin and other illicit opioids. While gabapentin  has a warning label cautioning users who take the drug with opioids, there is no similar warning for pregabalin.

“Although current product monographs for gabapentin contain warnings about serious adverse events when this agent is combined with opioids, those for pregabalin do not. The importance of our finding warrants a revision of the pregabalin product monographs,” wrote Gomes.

Pregabalin Abuse in Australia

Health officials in Australia are also concerned about the growing use of pregabalin.  Researchers at the NSW Poisons Information Centre say poisoning cases involving pregabalin rose from zero in 2005 to 376 cases in 2016.

“Our study shows a clear correlation between the rapid and continuous rise of pregabalin dispensing and an increase in intentional poisonings and deaths associated with pregabalin,” said lead author Dr. Rose Cairns, a specialist at the NSW Poisons Information Centre.

According to the Australian Journal of Pharmacy (AJP), there have been 88 recorded deaths associated with pregabalin in recent years. Most of the deaths involved young, unemployed males who had a history of substance abuse, particularly with opioids, benzodiazepines, alcohol and illicit drugs.

“We believe that Australian doctors may not be aware of the abuse potential of pregabalin,” Cairns said. “Most patients who are prescribed this medication are in the older population but the group who are at high risk of overdosing are much younger. These people are likely to have been prescribed pregabalin despite having a history of substance abuse.”

According to researchers, up to two-thirds of people who intentionally misused pregabalin had a prior documented substance abuse history. “Prescribers need to consider this growing body of evidence that pregabalin has abuse potential before prescribing, especially to patients with substance abuse history,” said Cairns.

Pfizer did not respond to a request for comment on the Canadian and Australian studies.

When Will They Start Listening to Pain Patients?

By Ann Marie Gaudon, PNN Columnist

It’s often suggested that pain patients and their advocates write or call elected officials, government regulators and physicians’ organizations to protest the sorry state of pain care in the U.S. and Canada. Many of us do just that and wind up feeling ignored or dismissed.

I have now corresponded with two different physicians at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (CPSO), only to be passed onto their “Director of Strategy” (a fancy pants title no less).

The CPSO is the body which governs physicians in Ontario and it has rigidly enforced Canada’s 2017 guideline for opioids. They have monitored patient files, hauled over 80 doctors in to investigate “overprescribing” and basically terrorized doctors for prescribing opioids.

The doctors in turn deny and restrict opioid medications to their patients out of fear for losing their licenses.

I have asked the CPSO these questions:

bigstock--157700663.jpg
  • What evidence do you have to indicate the long-term use of opioids increases pain?
  • Why is the chronic pain population being penalized for overdose deaths due to illicit street drugs?
  • Why are you not listening to chronic pain researchers, physicians and patients?
  • Does a decrease in opioid prescriptions and an increase in overdose deaths suggest a statistically significant relationship?
  • How is it ever acceptable for pain patients to be dictated to by non-pain specialists?

I have provided no less than 27 references to show that there was never a connection between chronic pain patients and those dying from overdoses. However, no one has provided me with answers to my questions -- not even fancy pants.  In fact, the CPSO continues to disseminate disingenuous information about pain management, opioids, addiction and overdoses.

And remember folks, these are the people who took an oath to care for the suffering. That would include all of us pain patients -- or one would think. To put out genuine effort and have nothing but deaf ears returned is sickening -- pun intended.

Health Canada also hasn’t answered my questions and continues to make baseless claims such as "high rates of opioid prescriptions are a contributing factor to Canada's opioid crisis." Predictably, when the media hears that, they rush to publish the news that Health Canada plans to “severely restrict marketing of opioids” -- as if that will have any effect on those dying from overdoses. It will not. The non-pained public laps it up.

I also wrote to my representatives in Parliament. MPP Michael Harris did not respond in any way. MP Marwan Tabbara responded with a boilerplate letter about the opioid crisis, yet when I asked for a purposeful response, none was forthcoming.

Dr. Helena Jaczek, Ontario’s Minister of Health, did not address my concerns either. A representative of Health Quality Ontario did respond to me quickly, yet when I replied with additional concerns, I had no further correspondence.

I’m aware that our friends in the U.S. are certainly not being heard either. Scores of you sent letters and emails commenting on the open letter that desperate pain sufferer Charles Malinowski sent to California Sen. Kamala Harris, who replied with a boilerplate letter filled with hype and hysteria about opioids and how more funding was needed to treat addiction.

Another example is when over 100 comments were submitted to the DEA asking it not to cut the supply of opioid medication because it could lead to shortages and worsen the quality of pain care. The DEA’s response? The agency said the comments dealt with medical issues that were “outside of the scope” of its order. Then it cut the supply anyway.

A genuine letter is sent and verbal diarrhea is returned. I can assure you that this phenomenon is not just “Made in America.” 

If you’ve written or tried to be heard and have gotten nowhere, that is no reason to stop trying to hold governments and physician groups accountable for their shameful disregard for pain patients. We have just had a shakeup in Ontario’s government, so it's all new players now. Will they help? I intend to find out.

Who is with me? More than ever pain patients and advocates need to stick together, focus and move toward effective change. Don’t make quitting an option. If you live in Canada and are a pain patient having unethical treatment forced upon you, please join us at this Facebook page. 

headshotJuly2018circle.jpg

Ann Marie Gaudon is a registered social worker and psychotherapist in the Waterloo region of Ontario, Canada with a specialty in chronic pain management.  She has been a chronic pain patient for 33 years and works part-time as her health allows. For more information about Ann Marie's counseling services, 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 represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Fake Norco Nearly Killed California Woman

By Pat Anson, Editor

An article published online in the Annals of Emergency Medicine shows just how easy it is for someone to be fooled – and nearly killed – by counterfeit pain medication.

It tells the story of an unnamed 41-year old California woman who treats her chronic back pain with regular doses of Norco, a prescription medication that combines acetaminophen and hydrocodone.

She was one of dozens of people who died or were hospitalized in northern California after ingesting counterfeit Norco bought on the street that was laced with illicit fentanyl – a synthetic opioid that is 50 to 100 stronger than morphine.

"Street Norco is almost indistinguishable from brand-name Norco in appearance but can be lethal," said lead author Patil Armenian, MD, of the University of California San Francisco-Fresno.

"This new street drug's toxicity led to an unexpected cluster of fentanyl deaths in California this spring. These deaths in our area combined with an emergency patient who was concerned about pill appearance and exceedingly sleepy after her usual dose of medication led to our investigation."

The woman in question suffers chronic pain from a herniated disc and normally buys the Norco illicitly, 2 to 3 tablets at a time. The article does not explain why she buys them off the street.

The woman felt sleepy and became unconscious within 30 minutes of taking three of the counterfeit tablets. She next remembered waking up in a hospital emergency room. She told hospital staff the pills had the markings of Norco, but were beige in color instead of the usual white.

A blood serum analysis revealed the woman had significant amounts of fentanyl and U-47700, another type of synthetic opioid. Neither drug is an ingredient in brand-name Norco.

“Toxic effects of these compounds are similar to those of other opioids, namely, miosis, respiratory depression, coma, and possible death. To our knowledge, this is the first reported opioid toxidrome case with confirmed serum concentration of U-47700,” said Armenian, adding that the woman was discharged from the hospital and has completely recovered.

“This case highlights that fentanyl-laced Norco is spreading to other regions and may contain psychoactive ingredients other than fentanyl, such as U-47700, prompting emergency providers to remain vigilant in their care.”

As Pain News Network has reported, the Drug Enforcement Administration is warning the U.S. faces an unprecedented “fentanyl crisis” that is growing worse as drug dealers ramp up production of counterfeit medication. Dozens of Americans have died this year after ingesting counterfeit versions of oxycodone, Norco and Xanax that are virtually indistinguishable from the real medications. Even a few milligrams of fentanyl can be fatal.

Fentanyl is legally prescribed in patches and lozenges to treat severe chronic pain, but the DEA said “hundreds of thousands of counterfeit prescription drugs” laced with illicit fentanyl are on the black market. The agency predicts more fake pills will be manufactured because of heavy demand and the “enormous profit potential” of fake medication.

Canada’s Fentanyl Crisis

Canada – which has been dealing with its own fentanyl crisis – may provide a preview of what’s in store for the U.S. Overdose deaths from fentanyl have reached such an urgent level that British Columbia Premier Christy Clark asked the federal government last week to restrict access to pill presses and to start screening “all small packages” entering the province for fentanyl. 

Earlier this year British Columbia declared a public health emergency and adopted new opioid prescribing guidelines that are even more stringent than those released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  

While the CDC’s guidelines are voluntary and intended only for primary care physicians, British Columbia’s guidelines are legally enforceable for all opioid prescribers because they set a “minimum standard of professional behaviour and ethical conduct.” The guidelines state that opioids should not be prescribed to treat headaches, fibromyalgia and low back pain.

In Ontario, the backlash against opioids has reached a point that palliative care doctors are worried they will no longer be able to give high doses to their patients – many of whom are dying from cancer and other chronic illnesses. Ontario’s Ministry of Health said public health plans next year would stop paying for high doses of hydromorphone, morphine and fentanyl patches.

“Our patients under palliative care deserve better than this,” Stephen Singh, MD, director of the Canadian Society of Palliative Care Physicians, told The Globe and Mail, adding that he was “appalled” by the government’s decision.