Surgeons Reduce Rx Opioids Without Increasing Pain

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Surgeons in Michigan have reduced the amount of opioid medication prescribed to patients recovering from common operations by nearly a third -- without causing patients to feel more postoperative pain.

In a new research letter published in the New England Journal of Medicine, a team from the Michigan Opioid Prescribing Engagement Network (OPEN) reported on the results of a statewide effort to get surgical teams to follow prescribing guidelines for postoperative pain.

In just one year, surgeons at 43 Michigan hospitals reduced the number of opioid pills prescribed to patients after nine common operations, from an average of 26 pills per patient to an average of 18.

The surgeries included minor hernia repair, appendix and gallbladder removal, and hysterectomies. Most were minimally invasive laparoscopic surgeries.

The ratings patients gave for their post-surgical pain and satisfaction didn't change from the ratings given by patients treated in the six months before opioids were reduced.

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Researchers say patients only took about half the opioids prescribed to them, even as the prescription sizes shrank. They attribute this to improved counseling about pain expectations and non-opioid pain control options.

"The success of the statewide effort suggests an opportunity for other states to build on Michigan's experience, and room for even further reductions in prescription size," said Michael Englesbe, MD, a University of Michigan surgery professor. "At the same time, we need to make sure that patients also know how to safely dispose of any leftover opioids they don't take."

The study involved over 11,700 patients who had operations at hospitals participating in the Michigan Surgical Quality Collaborative. About half of the patients also filled out surveys sent to their homes after their operations, asking about their pain, satisfaction and opioid use after surgery.

The Michigan-OPEN team has been working since 2016 to reduce opioid prescribing and quantify the appropriate number of pills patients should take. Their research led to the the development of new guidelines that were first tested on gallbladder surgery patients before being expanded to other types of surgery.

Some hospitals have stopped giving opioids to surgical patients. Patients at Cleveland Clinic Akron General Hospital get 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

It’s a common misconception that many patients become addicted to opioids after surgery. A 2016 Canadian study, for example, found that long term opioid use after surgery is rare, with less than one percent of older adults still taking opioid pain medication a year after major elective surgery.

Another large study 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.

Another fallacy is that leftover pain medication is often stolen, sold or given away. The DEA says less than one percent of legally prescribed opioids are diverted.

Study: 40% of Primary Care Clinics Refuse to See Pain Patients

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Many chronic pain patients know firsthand how difficult it can be to find a new doctor. In PNN’s recent survey of nearly 6,000 patients, almost three out of four (72%) said it is harder to find a doctor willing to treat their chronic pain.

“Two doctors refused to see me. I have no quality of life and I'm confined to bed. No one will help me,” one patient told us.

“It's to the point mentioning you need pain relief makes health care professionals look at you as an addict. Hell, when I have tried to get help for my pain and told the doctor I don't want opioids, I still get a suspicious look,” another patient said.

Over a third of patients (34%) in our survey said they’ve been abandoned by doctors and 15 percent said they haven’t been able to find a doctor at all.

A novel study by researchers at the University of Michigan confirms many of our findings. Using a "secret shopper" method, researchers posing as the adult children of patients taking the opioid Percocet called primary care clinics in Michigan to see if they could schedule an appointment for their parent. The callers also said their "parent" was taking medications for high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

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79 of the 194 clinics that were called – about 40 percent -- said they would not accept a new patient who was taking opioids, no matter what kind of health insurance they had.

Less than half of the clinics (41%) were willing to schedule an initial appointment and 17 percent said they needed more information before making a decision.

"We were hearing about patients with chronic pain becoming 'pain refugees', being abruptly tapered from their opioids or having their current physician stop refilling their prescription, leaving them to search for pain relief elsewhere," said lead researcher Pooja Lagisetty, MD, who published her findings in JAMA Network Open.

"However, there have been no studies to quantify the extent of the problem. These findings are concerning because it demonstrates just how difficult it may be for a patient with chronic pain searching for a primary care physician."

Lagisetty and her team did find that larger clinics and community health centers were more likely to accept new patients taking opioids, perhaps because they have more resources available to treat such patients.

Still, the overall findings are concerning because they mean many patients who need medical care -- not just for pain but for high blood pressure, diabetes and other common conditions -- are being turned away because of the stigma associated with opioids.

Without access to medical care, researchers say patients may turn to other means of obtaining opioids or to illicit substances. 

Our results suggest that there are significant barriers in accessing primary care for patients taking opioids for chronic pain.
— Pooja Lagisetty, MD, University of Michigan

“These findings may also reflect practitioners' discomfort with managing opioid therapy for chronic pain or treating patients with OUD (opioid use disorder) as a result of pressures to decrease overall opioid prescribing,” researchers found. “In addition, the findings may reflect frontline staff bias against what may be perceived as drug-seeking behavior and may not actually indicate prescriber decision-making or clinic-level policies.

“However, regardless of the reason for denial, our results suggest that there are significant barriers in accessing primary care for patients taking opioids for chronic pain.”

Lagisetty said the 2016 CDC opioid guideline – widely blamed by many patients for restricting access to opioid medication – is only part of the problem.

"States, including Michigan, have implemented many other policies that are only occasionally based on the guidelines, in an effort to restrict opioid prescribing," she said. "We hope to use this information to identify a way for us to fix the policies to have a more patient-centered approach to pain management.

"Everyone deserves equitable access to health care, irrespective of their medical conditions or what medications they may be taking."

Pets Help Take Our Minds Off Pain

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Pets make good companions, keep their owners physically active and help us enjoy life. But did you know that pets can also help take our minds off pain?

That’s one of the findings from a new National Poll on Healthy Aging conducted by AARP and the University of Michigan Institute for Healthcare Policy. Researchers surveyed over 2,000 American adults aged 50 to 80, who answered a wide range of questions online about the health benefits of pet ownership.

Companionship, social connection and physical activity were positive side effects of pet ownership for many poll respondents.

People said their pets helped them enjoy life (88%), make them feel loved (86%), help reduce stress (79%), keep them physically active (64%) and help them cope with physical and emotional symptoms (60%), including taking their mind off pain (34%).

For those who said their health was fair or poor, pet ownership offers the most benefits. More than 70 percent of those older adults said their pet helps them cope with physical or emotional symptoms, and nearly half (46%) said their pets help distract them from pain.

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"Relationships with pets tend to be less complicated than those with humans, and pets are often a source of great enjoyment," says Mary Janevic, PhD, an assistant research scientist at the U-M School of Public Health. "They also provide older adults with a sense of being needed and loved."

More than half of those who owned pets said they did so specifically to have a companion and nearly two-thirds said having a pet helps connect them to other people.

"We have long known that pets are a common and naturally occurring source of support," says Cathleen Connell, PhD, a professor at the U-M School of Public Health. “Although the benefits of pets are significant, social connections and activities with friends and family are also key to quality of life across the lifespan. Helping older adults find low cost ways to support pet ownership while not sacrificing other important relationships and priorities is an investment in overall mental and physical health."

While pets come with benefits, they can also bring concerns. Nearly one in five older adults (18%) said having a pet puts a strain on their budget. Some owners even put their animals' needs ahead of their own health.

"For people living on a fixed income, expenses related to health care for pets, and especially pets that have chronic health issues, can be a struggle. Older adults can also develop health problems or disabilities that make pet care difficult," said Janevic.

"More activity, through dog walking or other aspects of pet care, is almost always a good thing for older adults. But the risk of falls is real for many, and six percent of those in our poll said they had fallen or injured themselves due to a pet," said poll director Preeti Malani, MD. “At the same time, given the importance of pets to many people, the loss of a pet can deal a very real psychological blow that providers, family and friends should be attuned to."

More than half of older adults (55%) reported having a pet. Among pet owners, the majority (68%) had dogs, 48% had cats, and 16% had a small pet such as a bird, fish, or hamster.

Over half of pet owners (53%) reported that their pets sleep in their bed. Dog lovers are often told that’s a bad idea, but a recent study found an "overwhelmingly positive" response from owners who say they slept better with their dogs.

Study: Alcohol Relieves Fibromyalgia Pain

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Another study is adding to a growing body of evidence that alcohol is an effective – yet risky – way to treat chronic pain.

Researchers at the University of Michigan surveyed over 2,500 patients being treated at a university pain clinic about their drinking habits, pain severity and physical function. Participants were also assessed for signs of depression and anxiety. About a third of the patients were diagnosed with fibromyalgia (FM), a poorly understood disorder characterized by widespread body pain, fatigue, insomnia, headaches and mood swings.

Researchers, who recently published their study in the journal Pain Medicine, found that patients who were moderate drinkers had less pain and other symptoms than those who did not drink alcohol.

“Female and male chronic pain patients who drink no more than 7 and 14 alcoholic drinks per week, respectively, reported significantly lower FM symptoms, pain severity, pain-related interference in activities, depression, anxiety and catastrophizing, and higher physical function,” said lead author Ryan Scott, MPH, of UM’s Chronic Pain and Fatigue Research Center.

“These findings suggest that chronic pain patients with a lesser degree of pain centralization may benefit most from low-risk, moderate alcohol consumption.”

According to the Mayo Clinic, moderate alcohol consumption for healthy adults means up to one drink a day for women of all ages and men older than age 65, and up to two drinks a day for men age 65 and younger.

Of the study participants, over half reported use of opioid medication, which carries serious risks when combined with alcohol. Perhaps for that reason, participants in the UM study drank less alcohol than the general population.

“People with chronic pain may drink less due to the stigma and because they are being told not to drink while on pain medication,” says Scott.

Moderate drinkers with chronic pain were more likely to be white, have an advanced degree and were less likely to use opioids. They reported less pain, lower anxiety and depression, and higher physical function.

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Researchers found that fibromyalgia patients who drank moderately reported decreased pain severity and depression, but alcohol had no effect on how widespread their pain was or other symptoms such as cramps, headache, fatigue, poor sleep and cognitive dysfunction.

Scott believes alcohol may stimulate the production of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter in the central nervous system that reduces nerve activity. Alcohol and drugs such as gabapentin (Neurontin) that act on GABA typically have relaxing effects.

“Alcohol increases gamma-aminobutyric acid in the brain, which is why we could be seeing some of the psychiatric effects. Even though alcohol helped some fibromyalgia patients, it didn’t have the same level of effect,” said Scott. “You probably need much more GABA to block pain signals and that may be why we’re not seeing as high an effect in these patients.”

Over a dozen previous studies have also found that alcohol is an effective pain reliever. In a 2017 review published in the Journal of Pain, British researchers found “robust evidence” that alcohol acts as an analgesic.

“It could be a stepping stone to increased quality of life, leading to more social interactions,” says Scott. “Fibromyalgia patients in particular have a lot of psychological trauma, anxiety and catastrophizing, and allowing for the occasional drink might increase social habits and overall health.”

Pain App Lets Patients ‘Paint’ Their Pain

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

There are dozens of mobile apps that can help chronic pain patients track their symptoms, send reports to doctors, get health tips and even keep tabs on the weather.

GeoPain, a free app recently launched by a University of Michigan startup, takes the technology a step further. Instead of just giving a single number on a pain scale of zero to 10, patients can “paint” their pain on multiple locations on a 3D image of the human body.

The app’s creators say visually mapping the pain gives doctors a better idea of the pain’s location, severity, it’s possible cause and the best way to treat it.

“We can dissect the pain with greater precision, in one patient or several, and across multiple body locations,” says Alexandre DaSilva, co-founder of MoxyTech and director of the Headache & Orofacial Pain Effort Laboratory at the U-M School of Dentistry.

“Whether the patient has a migraine, fibromyalgia or dental pain, we can measure whether a particular medication or clinical procedure is effective for each localized or spread pain condition. Geopain is a GPS for pain health care.”

Patients can also use GeoPain to show their doctors a visual recording of a pain flare long after the flare has ended.

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“What patients are responding to the most is the visual tracking of their pain over time. They have shared some great stories of how they can now cleary show doctors how their pain has changed, which helps give them credibility and speeds up treatment,” Eric Maslowski, MoxyTech’s co-founder and chief technology officer, wrote in an email to PNN.

“Many clinicians like the visual nature of the app and ease of use. What was surprising to us initially was their interest in it for documenting patient visits for insurance and liability.” 

The app was initially created to track pain in patients enrolled in studies on migraine and chronic pain at the University of Michigan. Research showed that GeoPain data directly correlates with opioid activity in the brains of chronic pain patients, suggesting it might be useful in clinical trials to measure the effectiveness of pain medication.

The free app is available at Google Play, Apple’s App Store and at GeoPain.com.

Older Americans Rarely Abuse Opioid Medication

By Pat Anson, Editor

Three out of four older Americans who are prescribed opioid pain medication say they take it less often or in lower amounts than prescribed, according to a new national poll. Only 6 percent said they took opioids more frequently or in higher doses than prescribed.

The online survey of over 2,000 adults between the ages of 50 and 80 was conducted in March by the University of Michigan's Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation.  The poll was sponsored by AARP and Michigan Medicine, U-M's academic medical center.

Nearly a third of those surveyed said they received an opioid prescription in the past two years, usually for arthritis, back pain, surgery or injury. About half of those had leftover medication.

While most were cautious about their use of opioids, what they did with the leftover meds was cause for concern. The vast majority (86%) said they kept it in case they had pain again. Only 9% threw their opioids in the trash or flushed it down the toilet, and 13% returned it to an approved location.

"The fact that so many older adults report having leftover opioid pills is a big problem, given the risk of abuse and addiction with these medications," said Alison Bryant, PhD, senior vice president of research for AARP. "Having unused opioids in the house, often stored in unlocked medicine cabinets, is a big risk to other family members as well.”

The researchers suspect that many older adults fear that they will not be able to obtain pain medication when needed because of laws and guidelines that discourage opioid prescribing. Several states now mandate that initial opioid prescriptions for acute pain be limited to a few days’ supply.

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Ironically, while many older Americans may worry about losing access to opioid medication, nearly three out of four (74%) support restrictions on the number of days and pills that can be prescribed. And nearly half would support laws that require leftover medication to be returned.

The poll also found that doctors do not consistently warn patients about the risks associated with opioids. While 90% of those surveyed said their prescribing doctor talked with them about how often to take pain medication, only 60% were warned about side effects and less than half of the doctors cautioned patients about the risks of addiction and overdose or what to do with leftover pills.

A full report on the National Poll on Healthy Aging can be found by clicking here.

Fibromyalgia Linked to Overactive Brain Networks

By Pat Anson, Editor

Many fibromyalgia sufferers have been told that the pain is “all in their head.” New research indicates there may be some truth to that, and that overactive brain networks could play a role in the hypersensitivity of fibromyalgia patients.

Fibromyalgia is a poorly understood disorder characterized by deep tissue pain, fatigue, headaches, mood swings and insomnia. There is no known cause and successful treatments have been elusive.

In a lengthy study published in the journal Scientific Reports, an international team of researchers at the University of Michigan and in South Korea report that patients with fibromyalgia have brain networks primed for rapid responses to minor changes. This abnormal hypersensitivity is known as called explosive synchronization (ES).

"For the first time, this research shows that the hypersensitivity experienced by chronic pain patients may result from hypersensitive brain networks," says co-senior author Richard Harris, PhD, an associate professor of anesthesiology at Michigan Medicine’s Chronic Pain and Fatigue Research Center.

In ES, a small stimulus can lead to a dramatic synchronized reaction throughout the network, as can happen when a power outage triggers a major grid failure or blackout. Until recently, this phenomenon was studied in physics rather than medicine. Researchers say it's a promising avenue to explore in the quest to determine how a person develops fibromyalgia.

"As opposed to the normal process of gradually linking up different centers in the brain after a stimulus, chronic pain patients have conditions that predispose them to linking up in an abrupt, explosive manner," says first author UnCheol Lee, PhD., a physicist and assistant professor of anesthesiology at Michigan Medicine.

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The researchers tested their theory by conducting electroencephalogram (EEG) tests on the brains of 10 female patients with fibromyalgia. Baseline EEG results showed the patients had hypersensitive brain networks, and that there was a strong correlation between the degree of ES conditions and the self-reported intensity of their pain during EEG testing.

Lee's research team and collaborators in South Korea then used computer models of brain activity to compare the stimulus responses of the fibromyalgia patients to those of healthy ones. As expected, the fibromyalgia model was more sensitive to electrical stimulation.

"We again see the chronic pain brain is electrically unstable and sensitive," Harris says.

Harris says this type of modeling could help guide future treatments for fibromyalgia. Since ES can be modeled outside of the brain in computers, researchers can test for influential regions that transform a hypersensitive network into a more stable one. These regions could then be targeted in living humans using noninvasive brain modulation therapies such as transcranial magnetic stimulation, which is currently used to treat fibromyalgia and depression.

“We expect that our study may ultimately suggest new approaches for analgesic treatments. ES provides a theoretical framework and quantitative approach to test interventions that shift a hypersensitive brain network to a more normal brain network,” researchers reported. 

“It may be possible to convert an ES network to a non-ES network just by modulating one or two hub nodes. Indeed, transcranial magnetic stimulation and/or transcranial direct current stimulation may be improved by ‘targeting’ these sensitive hub nodes. The application of deep brain stimulation to critical nodes that could modify ES conditions is another therapeutic possibility that could be explored.”

The research was funded by the Cerephex Corporation, James S. McDonnell Foundation, and the National Institutes of Health