Kratom Helps Me with Pain and Addiction

(Editor’s note: The author of this column is using the pseudonym “Marc Smith’ because he fears his employment and healthcare could be jeopardized if his true identity were known.)

By Marc Smith, Guest Columnist

I have had a long and treacherous battle with health problems and substance abuse. Starting at age 14, I was diagnosed with multiple reoccurring bone tumors on my right leg below the knee. This led to six major surgeries; three for tumor removal and three for MRSA bacterial infection treatment and debridement.

My knee is completely damaged from the tumor destroying the top of my tibia and the bacteria completely eating away at my meniscus and cartilage. I have severe chronic and acute pain in that leg. I am not a candidate for a knee replacement due to the bone being too damaged and it is not a stable site for an artificial joint.

I have also been in a severe car accident that lacerated my left arm, broke the fibula in my left leg and tore the meniscus in my left knee.

The treatment of these ailments came with a lot of prescribed narcotic pain medications on a regular basis from age 14 on. My tolerance to these medications grew astronomically over 15 years until they stopped working effectively.

I eventually was buying OxyContin on the street and abusing it heavily. This led to IV heroin and cocaine use, and the loss of anything of real value I had.

I struggled with this crippling addiction for 18 years. I tried methadone, Suboxone, Vivitrol and complete abstinence -- with no significant success with any of them. Finally, I tried a strong 12-step recovery program. It worked temporarily, but the physical pain would become too much and I would relapse on opiates.

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A year ago, I found kratom and decided to try it for pain relief. It helps me with pain, helps me sleep, curbs craving, and allows me to function and participate in daily life without being in extreme pain. I do not have extreme tolerance building problems with kratom like I did with opioids. The side effects are extremely minor and do not impair my judgment or ability to function.

I am up at 4:30 AM every day and at the gym by 4:45 cycling for an hour. I have found the recumbent bike does not hurt my leg that badly. I lost weight due to exercise and diet changes that kratom helped me make. I am much more positive about taking care of myself and am able to be present for life.

My pain hasn’t completely vanished, but it is manageable due to kratom. My spiritual growth has been a big factor as well in my 12 months of sobriety. These two things working in harmony have literally saved my life. I am a completely different person and my family has their son back.

I do not want to die and the fact that this harmless plant is being targeted makes me scared for my life. Let’s focus on rehabilitation and recovery methods. Let’s focus on illicit fentanyl and other synthetic chemicals, not a natural botanical. Please, take a step back and look at kratom success stories like mine.

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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.

Lessons from ‘The United States of Opioids’

By Roger Chriss, PNN Columnist

Harry Nelson’s new book “The United States of Opioids: A Prescription for Liberating a Nation in Pain” looks closely and productively at the opioid overdose crisis. It comments on origins and causal factors, and offers pragmatic policy ideas for addressing it. The book is succinct and well-organized, designed for easy reading and reference.

Nelson starts with a dire description of addiction and overdose, calling the U.S. opioid crisis “American healthcare’s self-inflicted wound.” He then gives a brief history of opioids, explaining the three waves of the crisis, culminating in illicit fentanyl and “an increasing crackdown on physician overprescribing.”

Nelson touches on the history and science of opioids, then looks at causes of the crisis. These include not only Purdue Pharma and the Sacklers, but also drug distributors, retailers and health insurers. Institutional and regulatory failures on opioids are not ignored.

“The overarching problem when it comes to physician overprescribing has been insufficient training and education on how to prescribe opioids,” he writes. “The FDA approved these drugs and oversaw the data concerning the risks of their misuse, abuse, addiction, and overdose.”

But Nelson digs deeper, looking at the underlying social and cultural determinants that play into the longer term. He cites a 2018 University of Pittsburgh study that underscores that opioids are part of a broader trend in which abuse of multiple drugs and a rising drug overdose rate “that shows no signs of slowing, with sub-epidemics of different drugs over time.”

Unlike other books, Nelson writes in depth about how to address the crisis: “I believe that our attention should first be focused on a host of intersecting trends that point to suffering in America — parallel crises that include suicidality, anxiety, depression, and pain.”

He explores other options for pain management, from NSAIDs and nerve blocks to non-pharmacological techniques: “It is critical to push insurers and government programs to cover non-opioid treatment, even if it means spending more to achieve this priority.”

Nelson includes a whole chapter on cannabis and other alternative therapies for opioid addiction, in particular kratom and psychedelics. He is optimistic but tentative about cannabis: “Despite the potential to address health issues, consumers need to be cautious about both the claims and contents of cannabis products.”

He also looks at addiction treatment, including AA-type abstinence programs and medication-assisted therapy, and notes that “the biggest challenge in addiction treatment is the complexity of addiction itself.”

Nelson is highly critical of much of the response to the crisis to date: “When I think about the government and health system’s approach for taking on the opioid crisis, the thing that strikes me most is how much it feels tactical rather than strategic.”

Nelson condemns the rampant fraud and patient brokering in the recovery industry. But he also points out that addiction treatment itself needs improvement.

“We will know that addiction treatment has ‘arrived’ in terms of its integration into healthcare when we have relatively uniform professional and program licensure requirements from state to state — something seemingly decades away,” he wrote.

Nelson lists seven general recommendations for the crisis in his OPIOIDS acronym:

  • Outreach for prevention and early intervention

  • Physician improvements

  • Innovation in pain and addiction care

  • Overdose interventions

  • Interdiction off illicit opioids

  • Data analytics to better track the crisis

  • Strengthening access to addiction care

He emphasizes the value of harm reduction, improving social capital, and organizing prevention in schools and the workplace — instead of “stop gap” measures that do little beyond preventing fatal overdoses.

“The key to solving the opioid crisis lies in not being satisfied with tackling the overdose death issue, but in addressing two of the fundamental problems that got us here: the inadequate management of ongoing issues for people living with chronic pain, which overlaps with the second problem of people living with an opioid use disorder (OUD),” he writes.

Finally, Nelson gives a warning: “If we think about the opioid crisis as the ‘canary in the coal mine,’ it’s warning us that we need to address a much bigger, toxic set of problems.”

For all the book offers, it also has problems. Nelson overstates the number of people with opioid use disorder, misrepresents the complex nature of opioid initiation, and misconstrues the varied trajectory of heroin addiction. Most importantly, Nelson gives little attention to rising rates of cocaine and methamphetamine overdose deaths, and ignores that most overdoses involve multiple drugs.

“The United States of Opioids” offers a suite of tools and ideas for moving forward, a refreshing change from the many righteous rants or poignant laments about the crisis.

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

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

Study Debunks Myths About Origins of Opioid Abuse

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

It’s become a popular myth – and for some, a propaganda tool – to claim that opioid pain medication is a gateway drug to heroin and other street drugs.

An opioid education campaign called The Truth About Opioids – funded with taxpayer dollars from the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy — declares in big bold letters on its website that “80% of heroin users started with a prescription painkiller.”

The 80% figure stems from a 2013 study that found four out of five new heroin users had previously abused prescription opioids by using them non-medically.

Importantly, the heroin users were not asked if they had a valid prescription for opioids or even where they got them – but that doesn’t stop federal agencies from citing the study as proof that illegal drug use often starts with a legal opioid prescription.

The Drug Enforcement Administration last year used the 80% figure to justify steep cuts in the supply of prescription opioids, claiming in the Federal Register that addicts often get hooked “after first obtaining these drugs from their health care providers.”

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“The 80% statistic is misleading and encourages faulty assumptions about the overdose crisis and medical care,” Roger Chriss explained in a PNN column last year.

A new study by researchers at Penn State University debunks the myth that the opioid crisis was driven primarily by doctors’ prescriptions. The researchers conducted a series of surveys and in-depth interviews with opioid abusers in southwestern Pennsylvania -- a region hard hit by opioid addiction -- asking detailed questions about their drug use.

The study was small – 125 people were surveyed and 30 of them were interviewed – but the findings provide a an important new insight into the origins of opioid abuse and the role played by painkillers.

"What emerged from our study -- and really emerged because we decided to do these qualitative interviews in addition to a survey component -- was a pretty different narrative than the national one,” said lead author Ashton Verdery, PhD, an assistant professor of sociology, demography and social data analytics at Penn State. "There's a lot about that narrative that I think is an overly simplistic way of thinking about this."

‘Opioids Were Never the First Drug’

Verdery and his colleagues found that over two-thirds of those interviewed (66.7%) first abused a prescription opioid that was given, bought or stolen from a friend or family member. Another 7% purchased the drugs from a stranger or dealer. Only one in four (26%) started by abusing opioid medication that was prescribed to them by a doctor.

“We found that most people initiated through a pattern of recreational use because of people around them. They got them from either siblings, friends or romantic partners," said Verdery. “Participants repeatedly reported having a peer or caregiver in their childhood who had a substance use problem. Stories from childhood of witnessing one of these people selling, preparing, or using drugs were very common. Being exposed to others’ substance use at an early age was often cited as a turning point for OMI (opioid misuse) and of drug use in general.”

And prescription opioids were not the gateway drugs they are often portrayed to be. Polysubstance abuse was common and usually began with drugs such as alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, prescription sedatives and prescription stimulants.

“It is important to note that interviewees universally reported initiating OMI only after previously starting their substance use career with another drug (e.g., alcohol, marijuana, cocaine). Opioids were never the first drug used, suggesting that OMI is likely associated with being further along in one’s drug using career,” Verdery reported in the Journal of Addictive Studies.

Verdery says additional studies are needed on the origins of drug abuse and that researchers should focus on the role that other substances play in opioid addiction. Only then can proper steps be taken to prevent abuse and addiction before they start.

"We think that understanding this mechanism as a potential pathway is worth further consideration," said Verdery. "It's not just that people were prescribed painkillers from a doctor for a legitimate reason and, if we just crack down on the doctors who are prescribing in these borderline cases we can reduce the epidemic.”

What ‘Rocketman’ Tells Us About Pain and Addiction

By Lynn Webster, MD, PNN Columnist

“Rocketman” is a new biopic about the legendary singer Elton John. The emotionally-driven musical fantasy takes some liberties with certain details of John's life, but it illuminates an essential truth: childhood trauma can lead to pain, addiction and other severe health problems.

The movie is generating some Oscar buzz, but it offers more to viewers who want to see how painful childhood experiences can adversely affect people when they become adults.

The film begins with the flamboyantly wealthy and gifted Elton John strutting down a hallway -- in full costume complete with a colorful headpiece from a recent stage show -- to his first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.

He becomes the center of attention at the AA meeting when he begins to describe -- through flashbacks told, in part, through song and dance -- his childhood, which was devoid of love and acceptance.

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Elton John is a musical prodigy, but his talent couldn't save him from the harm caused by a father who rejected him and a mother who didn't protect him. As John told The Guardian, "My dad was strict and remote and had a terrible temper; my mum was argumentative and prone to dark moods. When they were together, all I can remember are icy silences or screaming rows."

As John remembers it, "The rows were usually about me, how I was being brought up."

How Childhood Trauma Affects Health

In her TED Talk, Dr. Nadine Burke Harris describes how childhood trauma can affect health over a lifetime — laying the foundation for seven out of 10 leading causes of death in the United States, including addiction and even suicide.

As Dr. Harris points out, our healthcare system treats childhood trauma as a social or mental health problem rather than as a medical issue. Doctors are trained to refer traumatized children to specialists rather than providing intervention and treatment themselves. But childhood trauma may lead to serious medical problems and can even reduce life expectancy by 20 years, according to a study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

The CDC’s Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (also known as the ACE Study) defined and examined this problem. The study acknowledged 10 types of childhood trauma, including verbal, physical, and sexual abuse; parental rejection and neglect; mental illness or incarceration of a family member; divorce; and substance dependence.

Of the 17,000 adults who participated in the study, two-thirds had experienced at least one of these childhood traumas. Eighty-seven percent had lived through more than one. The consequences of this can be staggering. People who experienced four childhood traumas were 2.5 times more likely to have pulmonary disease and hepatitis. And they were four times more prone to depression and had 12 times the risk for suicidality.

“Adverse childhood experiences are the single greatest unaddressed public health threat facing our nation today,” says Dr. Robert Block, President of the Academy of Pediatrics.

Trauma Rewires the Brain

Adverse childhood experiences rewire the brain. The heightened response to stress that some children develop can affect the reward center of the brain and the executive functioning of the prefrontal cortex. It can also result in maladaptive behaviors associated with pain and addiction.

About a decade ago, Dr. Norman Doidge provided an understanding of how our brains have the capacity to change in his book, “The Brain that Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science.”  His highly acclaimed research offers scientific hope that there is treatment for the adverse effects of childhood trauma and chronic pain.

Dr. Doidge describes neuroplasticity as the process through which an injured brain can heal itself. An example of this healing process was reported by National Public Radio's Patti Neighmond. It is called emotional awareness and expression therapy (EAET).

Developed in 2011 by psychologist Mark Lumley and Dr. Howard Schubiner, EAET combines talk therapy with cognitive behavioral therapy to change brains that have been structurally altered by trauma. The NIH’s Pain Management Best Practices Inter-Agency Task Force has recognized EAET as potentially beneficial to some people in chronic pain.

Preventing the Need for Drugs

“Rocketman” reflects more than the consequences of a single individual's traumatic childhood. It illuminates a broader social problem that sows the seeds for substance use disorders in adults. 

The approach we take to solving substance use disorders today is focused on treatment and law enforcement. Neither approach seems to be curbing the problem, which suggests the need for a better strategy. Long-term solutions to substance use disorders must include prevention. This means we need to understand what creates the demand for drugs.

Elton John’s story poignantly illustrates two of the causes of addictive behavior:

  1. Memories of pleasurable experiences are the reason drugs are repeatedly abused

  2. Memories of painful life experiences are commonly the genesis of drug initiation

There is compelling evidence that the trajectory of our mental and physical health begins with how we are treated as children. It may seem Pollyannish to say this, but our first line of defense is to love and accept our children, regardless of their gender identity, abilities or individual traits.

As “Rocketman” testifies, anything else can set children on the path to developing a substance use disorder and, in some cases, chronic pain. 

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Lynn R. Webster, MD, is a vice president of scientific affairs for PRA Health Sciences and consults with the pharmaceutical industry. Lynn is a former president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine, author of the award-winning book “The Painful Truth” and co-producer of the documentary “It Hurts Until You Die.”

You can find him on Twitter: @LynnRWebsterMD.

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.

Emmy Winning Video Perpetuates Myths About Addiction

By Dr. Lynn Webster, PNN Columnist

"Rebekkah's Story" recently won an Emmy for Short Format Daytime Program at the 46th Annual Daytime Emmy Awards. The six-and-a-half minute video was produced by Truth Initiative, a non-profit created to campaign against tobacco use that recently launched an opioid misuse and education campaign called The Truth About Opioids.

Rebekkah is a young woman addicted to opioid medication and heroin who spent five days in a “treatment box” publicly detoxing on a New York City street.  The documentary has also been broadcast on television and can be seen online:  

Though billed as educational, the producers of “Rebekkah’s Story” failed to accurately convey the facts. This is not the first time we've seen movies about drug use and addiction that misinform.  

I wrote a blog not long ago about the problems with two mainstream movies -- "Ben Is Black" and "Beautiful Boy"— both of which reinforced unhelpful narratives about addiction. In both films, good people from good families found themselves caught in the web of addiction, seemingly with no personal responsibility for it. 

"Rebekkah's Story" continues in the same tradition. It exploits Rebekkah and her experience while perpetuating three myths about addiction that do us no favors as our nation struggles with this terrible illness.

At the same time, millions of Americans with chronic pain are being forced off opioid medication — left to suffer in part because of these three myths:

Myth #1: Heroin Use Starts With Prescription Drugs

The movie begins with a misleading statistic: “Eighty percent of heroin users started with a prescription painkiller.” That implies taking painkillers as prescribed for medical use leads to using heroin 80% of the time, and that is not accurate. 

The 80% statistic comes from a 2013 study of heroin users who reported nonmedical use of opioid pain relievers before initiating heroin. Most of them had not been prescribed those opioids for pain; they obtained the drugs from family or friends for nonmedical use.  

In fact, the vast majority of people who use heroin have abused other substances prior to abusing prescription opioids. Usually, their long history of substance abuse begins in adolescence with tobacco, alcohol and other substances besides opioids. Moreover, by 2015, one in three heroin users initiated their opioid use with heroin.

Rebekkah's situation -- progressing from oxycodone to heroin -- was unusual. The video presents her story as a cautionary tale of what can happen if you use prescription opioids, but her story is atypical. Almost always, there are other factors that contribute to the transition from appropriate use to abuse and addiction. This is a truth not addressed in the film. 

The film begs the question: Why did Rebekkah start to use heroin? What did heroin provide that she could not resist? 

Myth #2: Withdrawal Is Synonymous to Addiction

"She had been an accomplished dancer and athlete, and that was lost when her addiction took over her life and self-image," explains the video's website. "Now Rebekkah is regaining control of both — courageously making her detox public in order to help other people while she works towards a new start."

The producers of “Rebekkah’s Story” present a poignant story, but they propose that withdrawal is synonymous with addiction. That is incorrect.

Withdrawal may be associated with addiction, but it does not necessarily follow from addiction. Not everyone who goes through withdrawal has the disease of addiction, and not everyone with addiction must go through the agonizing withdrawal that Rebekkah did.

A major problem that most people with addiction face is the stigma associated with their disease and their inability or unwillingness to obtain help. Fear of facing a legal penalty (such as incarceration) or a social consequence (estrangement from family members, job loss, etc.) often prevent those who use heroin from seeking treatment.  

People experience opioid withdrawal largely because the healthcare and criminal justice systems make access to appropriate and safe treatment illegal, unavailable or unaffordable.  

Myth #3: Detoxification Ends Addiction 

The ending of "Rebekkah's Story" differs from reality, too. Addiction is usually a life-long disease and patients who recover frequently relapse. The video's tidy and triumphant resolution does not accurately reflect what occurs in real life.  

It's troubling how the producers went about creating the video in ways that subtly strengthen and exploit the three myths about addiction.

Their set was a makeshift hospital room projected in a cubicle visible to pedestrians walking near Times Square. The setting was essentially a stage for performance art at Rebekkah's expense.

Rebekkah takes on the role of a gladiator engaging in combat against a metaphorical beast: the agony of opioid addiction.

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She is the heroine with whom we should empathize. We are supposed to share her anger toward the wicked doctors who prescribed her pain medication. 

People watch as Rebekkah suffers from withdrawal without receiving the medical treatment that should be available to anyone in withdrawal. It was surprising that, in the documentary, an addiction physician was complicit in exploiting a person undergoing withdrawal.   

No one should be forced to experience what Rebekkah went through. She should have been given appropriate medical care as she recovered from heroin abuse. 

"Rebekkah's Story" claims to tell the truth about opioids. It does not. All it shows is Rebekkah’s decision to voluntarily and publicly experience a horrible withdrawal that was both unnecessary and avoidable.

Unfortunately, compliant and non-addicted pain patients who are currently being forced off opioid medication don’t have the same stage to tell their stories. Their voices often go unheard, and their agonies are invisible.

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Lynn R. Webster, MD, is a vice president of scientific affairs for PRA Health Sciences and consults with the pharmaceutical industry. He is a former president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine and is author of the award-winning book “The Painful Truth” and co-producer of the documentary “It Hurts Until You Die.”

You can find him on Twitter: @LynnRWebsterMD.

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.

Record Decline in Opioid Prescriptions

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Often lost in the debate over opioid medication is that prescriptions for the drugs have been falling for years — a trend that appears to be accelerating. The volume of prescription opioids dispensed in the U.S. last year fell 17 percent, the largest annual decline ever recorded, according to a new study by the health analytics firm IQVIA. Opioid prescriptions have dropped 43% since their peak in 2011.

“Decreases in prescription opioid volume have been driven by changes in clinical use, regulatory and reimbursement policies and legislation, all of which have increasingly restricted prescription opioid use since 2012,” the report found.

The biggest drop was in high dose opioid prescriptions of 90 MME (morphine milligram equivalent) or more, which account for 43% of the decline. Low dose prescriptions of 20 MME or less have remained relatively stable, falling just 4 percent.

While opioid prescriptions have fallen significantly, addiction and overdose rates continue to soar, fueled in large part by illicit fentanyl, heroin and other black market opioids.

“We saw many more people receiving medication-assisted treatment (MAT) for opioid addiction. Our research shows new therapy starts for MATs increased to 1.2 million people in 2018, nearly a 300 percent increase compared with those seeking addiction help in 2014,” said Murray Aitken, IQVIA senior vice president.

“This is an important indicator of the effects of increased funding and support for treatment programs to address addiction.”

A recent report by the Bipartisan Policy Center estimates the federal government spent nearly $11 billion since 2017 subsidizing the addiction treatment industry, much of it spent on MAT drugs such as buprenorphine (Suboxone).

Drug maker Indivior recently reported the buprenorphine market had double digit growth in the first quarter of 2019, and that “growth continues to be driven primarily by Government channels.”

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Hydrocodone Prescriptions Drop

For the 7th consecutive year, prescriptions fell for hydrocodone-acetaminophen combinations such as Vicodin, Lortab and Norco. Once the #1 most widely dispensed drug in the nation, hydrocodone now ranks fifth, behind drugs used to treat thyroid deficiency, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

Only 68 million prescriptions for hydrocodone were dispensed last year, half the number that were filled in 2011.

U.S. HYDROCODONE PRESCRIPTIONS (MILLIONS)

Source: IQVIA

Due to fears about addiction and overdose, hydrocodone was reclassified by the DEA as a Schedule II controlled substance in 2014, requiring new prescriptions for every refill.

“My hydrocodone has been cut in half and my pain is out of control. I feel like a criminal, like I am committing a crime each time I pick up my prescription. I now have to visit my doctor once a month to receive my script,” one patient told us.

“I was prescribed hydrocodone over the last couple of decades for severe chronic pain with very positive effects. Now I am unable to carry out a lifestyle for a man my age, I'm basically done/finished.  My way of life is over,” a disabled veteran wrote.

“Stop denying the patients that have real pain. I don’t use it to get high. Hydrocodone is the only thing that has helped my back pain. I’ve tried a lot of things but nothing helps. It frees me of enough of the pain that I can function like a normal person,” another patient said.

The shift away from hydrocodone and other opioids has benefited pharmaceutical companies that make non-opioid medications such as Neurontin (gabapentin) and Lyrica (pregabalin).  Prescriptions for gabapentin reached 67 million last year – nearly the same as hydrocodone.

These trends have yet to show much benefit for pain patients, who increasingly report their pain is poorly treated. In a recent PNN survey of nearly 6,000 patients, over 85% said their pain and quality of life are worse since the release of the CDC opioid prescribing guideline. One in five say they are hoarding opioid medication because they fear losing access to it in the future.

Biden: ‘A Little Pain Is Not Bad’

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Former Vice-President Joe Biden, who appears close to announcing a run for president in 2020, may want to think twice about the message he’s sending to a large group of voters: chronic pain patients.

While speaking Thursday as part of a panel on the opioid crisis at the University of Pennsylvania, Biden said too many doctors “willy-nilly overprescribed” opioid pain relievers.

"A little pain is not bad," said Biden. “A lot of people can get addicted within five days.”

FORMER VICE-PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN

FORMER VICE-PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN

“We got here, I believe in part, because of the greed of the drug companies and the irresponsibility of them and, quite frankly, a lack of sufficient responsibility on the part of the medical profession,“ Biden said, adding that 215 million prescriptions for opioids were written in 2016.

“We desperately need people with chronic pain to have this access, but you cannot convince me anywhere near that is the case,” he said.

The 76-year old former senator also expressed regret about being a co-sponsor of the 1988 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which created tougher sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine. Critics say the law sent a disproportionate share of African-Americans and other minorities to prison.

"The big mistake was us buying into the idea that crack cocaine was different from the powder cocaine, and having penalties ... it should be eliminated," Biden said, according to Delaware Online. “I’m sorry I didn’t know more about behavior.”

Biden’s knowledge about the opioid crisis appears dated. The vast majority of overdose deaths are now attributed to illicit fentanyl, heroin and other black market opioids, not pain medication. The number of opioid prescriptions has also been declining for several years and now stand at their lowest level since 2003.

Prescription opioids are not particularly risky if used responsibly, according to a recent study of over half a million Medicare patients who were prescribed the drugs. Over 90 percent had a negligible risk of an overdose. Even among “high risk” patients on high opioid doses, the risk of an overdose is less than two percent.  

A major review of studies on long term opioid therapy found that only 0.27% of patients were at risk of opioid addiction, abuse or other serious side effects. In another large study, The British Medical Journal reported that only 3% of opioid naïve patients (new to opioids) continued to use the drugs 90 days after a major elective surgery.

Biden’s advice to pain sufferers that “a little pain is not bad,” is reminiscent of a statement by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who told a Florida audience in 2018 that "people need to take some aspirin sometimes and tough it out.”

You can watch the opioid panel discussion on YouTube by clicking here.

The Complexity of Rx Opioid Misuse

By Roger Chriss, PNN Columnist

The misuse of prescription opioids is a complex phenomenon. Recent research has found that non-medical opioid use almost always involves a variety of other substances -- not just exposure in the course of routine medical care.

The risks of non-medical prescription opioid use developing into addiction need to be better understood to develop more effective measures to prevent misuse and to ensure that patients who use opioids responsibly are not wrongly targeted.

A new study in The American Journal on Addictions looked closely at the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, which found that that about 2.5% of respondents had misused prescription opioids in the previous 30 days. Almost half (43.9%) obtained opioid analgesics from a friend or relative for free and most were using other substances, such as cigarettes, alcohol, marijuana or street drugs.

“So much of the public discussion focuses on the opioid epidemic as though it is happening in a vacuum when, in fact, so many people misusing prescription opioids are also engaging in other substance use,” says lead author Timothy Grigsby, PhD, an assistant professor at The University of Texas at San Antonio.

“If we want to end the opioid epidemic, and stop another similar one from taking its place, then we need to consider the entire clinical picture of the patient including their use of other substances.”

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Grigsby and his colleagues found that prescription opioid and polydrug users were also more likely to engage in stealing, selling drugs, have suicidal thoughts, suffer from major depression and need substance use treatment.

A similar study recently published in the journal Pediatrics examined non-medical prescription opioid use by parents and teenagers. The study found that parental misuse of opioid analgesics was associated with teenagers doing the same, with mothers’ use having a stronger association than fathers’ use.

Parental smoking, low parental monitoring and parent-adolescent conflict were also associated with teenage prescription opioid misuse, as were adolescent smoking, marijuana use, depression, delinquency and schoolmates’ drug use.

Despite what you may have heard, non-medical prescription opioid use does not usually lead to heroin. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that only 4 to 6 percent of people who misuse prescription opioids transition to heroin.

But trends in this transition have been shifting. A new study in PLOS One found that people who injected illicit drugs who were born after 1980 were more likely to initiate drug use with prescription opioids and non-opioids, and had higher levels of polydrug use. This study was limited to Baltimore, but similar findings have been reported for other parts of the U.S.

Importantly, most non-medical prescription opioid use occurs in the context of more general substance use. U.S. News recently reported that most patients treated in emergency rooms for misuse of prescription medications get into trouble because they mixed different substances.

"Most of the time there may have been only one pharmaceutical involved, but there were other non-pharmaceutical substances or psychoactive drugs or alcohol involved as well. When people get into trouble with misusing medicines, they're usually taking more than one substance," Dr. Andrew Geller of the CDC told U.S. News.

This is a long-standing trend in the opioid crisis. The 2014 Overdose Fatality Report in Kentucky found that the top five drugs in drug-related deaths were morphine, cannabis, heroin, alcohol and alprazolam (Xanax), with more than one drug present in many overdoses.

Moreover, a new study in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment compared 2013 and 2017 data on patients seeking opioid addiction treatment. Researchers found that many patients had employment, psychiatric, alcohol and drug problems, and were more likely to have depression, anxiety, hallucinations and suicidal thoughts. In other words, the overdose crisis is far more complex and dangerous than just opioids alone.

Fortunately, these long-standing trends are now starting to be appreciated. Public and private health officials in Ohio have started looking at data from multiple sources to better address mental health and substance abuse. 

The overdose crisis is a fast-moving target that is rapidly evolving. Overdoses now more than ever involve multiple drugs, and may not even occur among people who use opioids non-medically or people who have a substance use disorder. Understanding these features of the crisis is essential for developing better responses.

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

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

Should the CDC Opioid Guideline Be Revised?

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Carol Levy’s recent column (see “Guideline Paranoia”) drew quite a response from PNN readers, many of them offended by Carol’s contention that pain sufferers complain too often about the CDC’s 2016 opioid prescribing guideline.

“Maybe if we did not take any and all new guidelines as a frontal attack on us, maybe we would not be seen and referenced so often as a major component and cause of the opioid epidemic,” Carol wrote.

Those were fighting words to many pain sufferers who’ve been cutoff from opioid medication or had their dose reduced since the guideline came out. Dozens of patients commented on Carol’s column.

“Sounds a bit like blaming the victim for getting upset,” said Jen Saeger. “We ARE being targeted and having our medication taken away because these CDC guidelines have been taken as law. This isn’t overreacting, this is happening all over the country.”

“This woman needs to be educated about what is actually happening. We aren't overacting,” said Teresa. “Does she not know pain patients are being tapered or have completely lost their pain meds? Has she not heard of the suicides that are occurring in the chronic pain community?”

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“Once these guidelines were released my pain doctor cut my medications by nearly 50% as well as many of his other chronic pain patients. He also showed me a letter from the CDC exclaiming that he was writing too many prescriptions for narcotic pain killers,” said Joe Allio. “So when they say this was a suggested guideline and not a mandate, IT'S A BIG FAT LIE!!!!! What I saw in this letter was nothing short of a threat!”

“The policymakers are the ones that need to be reminded that these are just guidelines,” wrote Vickie Tway. “You might especially want to let the DEA know this as they are running roughshod over physicians and causing those who DO want to help intractable pain patients to give up their profession for fear of being raided and facing criminal charges for doing their jobs.”

“The problem is that (doctors), pharmacies and insurance companies are using those said guidelines against chronic pain patients. Whether that's who they were intended for or not. CPP are having their meds cut back or cut off because of this hysteria and the new guidelines,” said Tracey Morales. “Until the CDC makes a statement to set this right people are going to continue suffering.”

CDC ‘Committed to Evaluating the Guideline’

PNN readers are better informed and more knowledgeable about the CDC guideline than most Americans. And they’re right when they say that the guideline was only supposed to promote a dialogue between primary care physicians and patients about the risks of opioid therapy.  The recommendations were never meant to be mandatory rules for everyone to follow, yet they’ve been widely adopted by other federal agencies, states, insurers, pharmacies and throughout the U.S. healthcare system.

Within months of the guideline’s release, CDC was warned by its own public relations consultants that “some doctors are following these guidelines as strict law” and that “pain patients who have relied on these drugs for years are now left with little to no pain management.”

In a joint letter to the CDC last year, over 200 healthcare providers warned the agency that many patients were being abandoned or forcibly tapered off opioids, and some were turning to suicide or illegal drugs to escape from their pain.

“Within a year of Guideline publication, there was evidence of widespread misapplication of some of the Guideline recommendations,” the letter warns. “These actions have led many health care providers to perceive a significant category of vulnerable patients as institutional and professional liabilities to be contained or eliminated, rather than as people needing care.”

The CDC pledged three years ago to “revisit this guideline as new evidence becomes available.”

“CDC is committed to evaluating the guideline to identify the impact of the recommendations on clinician and patient outcomes, both intended and unintended, and revising the recommendations in future updates when warranted.”

Will the CDC keep its pledge? The agency did not immediately respond to a request for comment on what it was doing to assess the impact of guideline or whether it would be revised.

(Update: On February 28th — 9 days after we asked — the CDC sent PNN a brief statement indicating it has “several studies underway with external researchers” evaluating the impact of the guideline on opioid prescribing and patient outcomes.

“CDC is commissioning a chronic pain systematic review by the Agency for Healthcare Research & Quality (AHRQ) to determine what new scientific evidence has been released since the CDC Guideline was released in March 2016. The chronic pain systematic review is underway now,” said CDC spokesperson Courtney Lenard.

“The review will evaluate the effectiveness and comparative effectiveness of non-opioid pharmacologic therapy and pharmacologic (opioid and non-opioid) therapy for chronic pain, considering the effects on pain, function, quality of life, and adverse events.”

The statement gave no indication when the review and other studies would be completed.)

How has the guideline affected you and should it be revised? If you’re a patient or healthcare provider, you can help shape the debate by taking our survey. Either click here or on the banner above.

We’ll release the survey results on March 15th, the third anniversary of the guideline’s release.   

CDC: Opioid Prescriptions Drop in 3 of 4 U.S. Counties

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has released another study documenting how prescriptions for opioid medication have fallen dramatically in recent years. The study partially credits the CDC’s own guideline for the drop in opioid prescribing, but makes no mention of the suffering and suicides of pain patients who’ve been cut off from opioid medication.

Researchers at the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control – which developed the agency’s controversial 2016 guideline -- looked at opioid prescribing trends nationally from 2015 to 2017.

They found significant declines in high dose opioid prescribing and in the average daily dose, which fell from 48.1 MME (morphine milligram equivalent) to 45.2 MME, a 6% decline. The guideline recommends that doses not exceed 90 MME except in rare instances.

Nearly 3 out of 4 counties experienced a reduction of 10% or more in the amount of opioids prescribed – the counties colored green in the map below. Relatively few counties, primarily in the Midwest and northern Rockies, had a 10% or more increase in opioid prescribing – counties that are marked in orange.

JAMA INTERNAL MEDICINE

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“The reduction in opioid prescribing that began in 2012 has accelerated in the United States. The amount of opioids prescribed decreased an average of 10.0% annually with reductions in 74.7% of counties from 2015 to 2017,” CDC researchers reported in JAMA Internal Medicine.

“Recent reductions could be related to policies and strategies aimed at reducing inappropriate prescribing, increased awareness of the risks associated with opioids, and release of the CDC Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain—United States, 2016. Despite reductions in prescribing, opioid overdose rates continue to increase and are driven largely by illicitly manufactured fentayl.”

A similar CDC study in 2018 also documented a decline in prescriptions, but made no effort to measure the guideline’s impact on patients and whether it had improved the quality of their pain care or worsened it.  There is only a brief acknowledgement that both studies are limited by “the inability to determine the appropriateness of opioid prescriptions” -- a belated and backhanded admission by the CDC that its guideline is built on the false premise that it knows what an appropriate dose is.

Had the CDC looked in its own Twitter feed touting the latest study, it could have found insight from patients on the guideline’s effect on the quality of pain care.

“Yea this is why my wife has been bedridden for over 2 YEARS now as her doctor does NOT BELIEVE in pain medication.  And when we call all the other practices in the area its more of the same response. Either we don't prescribe opioids or we don't take pain patients,” one poster wrote.

“Let's not forget skyrocketing suicide and patients turning to the streets for relief. Good job you now have a #OpioidCrisis of your own making,” another poster wrote.

“When the numbers of a drug are more meaningful than the human lives they help. So caught up in numerical reduction people who once had managed pain are forced to suffer or #SuicideDueToPain. I guess this makes you folks very proud, to kill off the disabled,” said another.

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“And here we see the CDC touting what they think is a great thing. Ironically of course they are likely NOT tracking how many patients committed suicides after being forcibly tapered for no medical reason,” said Dave Wieland, a pain patient and advocate.

“And you can bet they are NOT tracking how many patients who had been able to work on their stable medication dosage, have now been forced to apply for disability after having their medication also taken away for no medical reason. Oh yea that's right the CDC doesn't care about those things.”

When the CDC released its guideline nearly 3 years ago, it pledged to “revisit this guideline as new evidence becomes available" and to evaluate its impact on doctors and patients.

How has the CDC guideline affected you? As the third anniversary of the guideline approaches, PNN is conducting a new survey of patients and healthcare providers. Is the guideline working as intended?

Click here to take the survey, which should only take a few minutes.