Health Canada Supports Use of Prescription Heroin to Treat Addiction

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Canada’s national health agency -- Health Canada – is supporting efforts to expand the use of pharmaceutical-grade heroin in treating opioid addiction.

A treatment center in Vancouver, BC is currently the only clinic in North America that provides diacetylmorphine -- prescription heroin – to opioid addicts. Other clinics may soon follow, after last month’s publication of the first clinical guideline for using injectable diacetylmorphine and hydromorphone to treat people with severe opioid use disorder.

Heroin is classified as a Schedule I controlled substance in the United States, making it illegal to prescribe for any purpose. But pharmaceutical grade heroin is legal in Canada, UK and several other European countries, where studies have found it is an effective way of treating — or at least managing — opioid addiction.

In a statement to PNN, Health Canada said it supports using diacetylmorphine to help create a safe drug supply for addicts who use dangerous street drugs and have failed at other forms of treatment.

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“Many stakeholders have been calling for a secure and predictable supply of pharmaceutical-grade opioids as an alternative to the contaminated illegal drug supply. Studies have shown that prescription opioids, such as injectable hydromorphone and diacetylmorphine (prescription-grade heroin), have been successful in helping to stabilize and support the health of some patients with opioid use disorder,” said Jennifer Novak, Executive Director of Health Canada’s Opioid Response Team.

“Health Canada has taken steps towards this objective, including making prescription opioids used in the treatment of severe opioid disorder more easily accessible to healthcare practitioners, reducing regulatory barriers, funding guidelines for opioid use disorder treatment, and supporting safe supply pilot projects in British Columbia.”

Pain patients and their advocates bristle at Health Canada’s willingness to liberalize the use of heroin to treat addiction – while it supports policies that limit access to opioid pain medication.

"While it's necessary to make every effort to keep those suffering from substance abuse alive, why has this come at the cost of pain patients' lives? Health Canada blamed these patients for overdose deaths they played no part in and consequently they can no longer access their necessary medicine. The most severe have been sent spiraling back into more suffering, disability, suicide, and to purchase street drugs out of sheer desperation,” says Ann Marie Gaudon, a PNN columnist, pain patient and advocate. 

“Health Canada acts like a hero trying to save those addicted while simultaneously refusing to admit that they have indeed added to the death toll by adding pain patients. Where is their help? It is nowhere to be seen in the homes of Canada." 

Nearly 1 in 5 Canadians suffer from chronic pain and Canada has the second highest rate of opioid prescribing in the world.   

In an effort to reduce the supply of prescription opioids, Canada adopted an opioid guideline in 2017 that is very similar to one released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention a year earlier. Both guidelines have had a negligible impact on the overdose rate, while pain patients on both sides of the border lost access to opioid medication or had their doses reduced to ineffective levels.

“Health Canada recognizes that some people who live with chronic pain have been unable to access opioid medications when needed to manage their pain,” Novak said. “We know that opioid medications are an important tool in the management of pain for some Canadians and are working with stakeholders and partners to promote opioid prescribing practices that balance the benefits and harms of these medications based on the individual needs of each patient.” 

Asked what Health Canada is doing to improve healthcare for pain patients, Novak said the agency was providing $3 million in funding to improve education in pain management for physicians, nurses, pharmacists and social workers.  

Three million dollars is a tiny fraction of the $253 billion spent on healthcare in Canada in 2018.

"It's a pittance but the very sad part is that it's all going right back into the same people and programs that made this whole mess to begin with,” says Gaudon. “Nothing new, no help on the horizon for those whose lives have been shattered. They talk as if they are doing something but they truly are not. It's pure rubbish."

Should Heroin Be Used to Treat Addiction?

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Some Canadian doctors are using novel approaches to treat opioid addiction, everything from safe injection sites to opioid vending machines to prescription heroin.

A new proposal would take the concept a step further by establishing the first clinical guideline for using hydromorphone and pharmaceutical grade heroin to treat people with severe opioid use disorder. The idea is to provide a safer supply to opioid addicts who currently use illicit heroin, counterfeit pills and other street drugs, which are often laced with fentanyl.

"Offering injectable opioid treatments is an effective way for clinicians to address the toxicity of the fentanyl-adulterated drug supply and help people achieve stability so they can focus on other aspects of their lives to get well, such as housing, employment, and connecting with family," says Dr. Christy Sutherland, Medical Director of PHS Community Services Society in Vancouver, BC.

Sutherland is one of the co-authors of the guideline, which is published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. In 2018, nearly 4,500 Canadians died from opioid overdoses, with about 75% of the deaths involving fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that’s become a scourge on the black market.

"Opioid use disorder is a public health emergency nationwide; unfortunately, resources for the treatment of opioid addiction have been scarce and guidelines outlining best practices for innovative treatments have been lacking. This guideline is a blueprint for health practitioners to step up and provide evidence-based care," says Dr. Nadia Fairbairn, British Columbia Centre on Substance Use and the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC.

Heroin is classified as a Schedule I controlled substance in the United States, making it illegal to prescribe. But pharmaceutical grade heroin (known as diacetylmorphine) is legal in Canada, UK and several other European countries.

Studies have found that heroin-assisted treatment is effective in treating opioid addiction in patients who have failed at other treatment methods, such as methadone.

Under the proposed guideline, injectable heroin (diacetylmorphine) and hydromorphone (Dilaudid) could be used to treat severe opioid addiction in patients who do not respond to oral medication or use illicit injectable opioids.

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It would be up to each Canadian province to decide whether to adopt the guideline.

Pharmaceutical heroin and safe injection sites are controversial issues in the U.S. But a recent analysis by the RAND Corporation advocates their use to combat opioid addiction.

“Given the increasing number of deaths associated with fentanyl and successful use of heroin-assisted treatment abroad, the U.S. should pilot and study this approach in some cities,” said Beau Kilmer, co-director of the RAND Drug Policy Research Center. “This is not a silver bullet or first-line treatment. But there is evidence that it helps stabilize the lives of some people who use heroin.”

What About Pain Patients?

Pain patient advocates in Canada were taken aback by the proposal to liberalize the use of heroin to treat opioid addiction. Opioid pain medication is increasingly difficult to obtain in Canada, as it is in the United States, because of restrictive guidelines.

“It is indeed shocking. Pain patients continue to be marginalized, stigmatized, ignored and left to suffer,” said Barry Ulmer, Executive Director of the Chronic Pain Association of Canada.  “I do think it is ridiculous to say opioid use disorder is a public health emergency. The population they are addressing no doubt has to be addressed, but in terms of numbers it is minuscule to those suffering pain, yet the number of dollars expended for both is just out of whack.

“People suffering pain cannot obtain help or even maintain access to medication they have been stable on for years. Something is sadly wrong. What is a public health emergency is the epidemic of undertreated chronic pain. They should get their blinders off. We have well over 1 million Canadians suffering from high impact pain, yet they are pretty much marginalized.”

One of those Canadians is Dan Wallace, a retired military veteran and police detective who lives with chronic knee and shoulder pain.

“I applaud the efforts made and others that are contemplated for the near future that would allow those who are addicted to obtain legally prescribed heroin that would keep them from the tainted street drug supply,” Wallace said. “Where I have a problem is with the complete dismissal of medical care to the many legacy patients who were previously prescribed opioids to manage their pain.”

Wallace used opioid medication for over 20 years before being tapered. He now has trouble walking and sleeping because of what he calls “a tortuous and cruel degree of pain.”

“I and others like me aren’t looking for a handout of free heroin because we haven’t been able to control ourselves and have become addicts. No one deserves to be treated like throw-away patients yet pain patients are just that. Why is it that their lives matter while simultaneously ours do not?” Wallace asks.

“I have never abused any substance in my life. Does my suffering ever help a single person who will now be getting prescribed heroin so they don’t have to buy illegal street drugs? Health Canada should be deeply ashamed at the needless suffering, disability, and deaths of pain patients they have caused.”

The Opioid Risk Tool Has Been Weaponized Against Pain Patients

By Dr. Lynn Webster, PNN Columnist

I was surprised and deeply disappointed to learn this week that people have been denied opioid prescriptions due to their responses on the Opioid Risk Tool (ORT).

As a guest on the DPP Rally Talk Show with Claudia Merandi, I heard from a caller who told me that her doctor denied her an opioid prescription based on her ORT answers.

One particular answer seems to have caused the caller’s problem: She acknowledged her history of experiencing preadolescent sexual abuse. Apparently, the doctor used that as a reason to deny her access to opioid medication to treat her pain. This is a terrible misapplication of the tool.

The ORT is a self-assessment tool I developed and published about 15 years ago. It was developed at a time when we didn’t know the rate of opioid abuse in patients who were prescribed an opioid for noncancer pain. We needed a tool to help evaluate whether the risk of potential harm from opioids outweighed the good.

I never intended for doctors to use the ORT to determine who should or shouldn’t be prescribed an opioid. My goal was to help doctors identify patients who were at increased risk of misuse and addiction, so that they could receive more careful observation during treatment.

Since abuse and addiction are diagnosed by observing atypical behaviors, knowing which patients are at greatest risk for displaying those behaviors is useful in establishing appropriate levels of monitoring for abuse.

I was not alone in the belief that it was critical to assess patients for their risk potential.

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In 2009, the American Pain Society and American Academy of Pain Medicine published a guideline for opioid prescribing. Its first recommendation stated: “Prior to initiating COT (chronic opioid therapy), clinicians should conduct a history, physical examination, and appropriate testing, including an assessment of risk of substance abuse, misuse, or addiction.”

Then, in 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s opioid-prescribing guideline recommended that “before starting and periodically during continuation of opioid therapy, clinicians should evaluate risk factors for opioid-related harms.”

Several other opioid prescribing guidelines also recommended assessing patient risk before initiating therapy. These included the Washington State Department of Health, Utah Clinical Guidelines on Prescribing Opioids for Treatment of Pain, the American Society of Interventional Pain Physicians (ASIPP) Opioid Guidelines, and others.

Risk Factors for Opioid Abuse

Assessing the risk of developing opioid abuse is based on genetic and environmental factors, just as it is with other diseases. Accordingly, the ORT includes questions about family and personal history of substance abuse, since both areas contribute to genetic and environmental factors. 

Genetics are estimated to contribute between 50 to 60% of an individual's vulnerability to opioid addiction. By contrast, genetics contribute only about 30% to a person's vulnerability to marijuana.

A person with one addiction is seven times more likely to develop an addiction to a different class of drugs, so genetics plays a major role in determining who will and who will not develop an opioid use disorder (OUD). Additionally, life experiences -- which are part of one’s environment -- also play a role.

The ORT asks if there is a history of experiencing preadolescent sexual abuse. Studies indicate that preadolescent sexual abuse is believed to result in something clinically similar to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) has reported that 30 to 60% of women who are undergoing drug abuse treatment suffer from PTSD. One treatment center in New York City reports that more than 90% of women treated for substance abuse had experienced sexual or traumatic abuse. 

According to another NIDA report, victims of rape were 10 times more likely to have abused heroin and other stimulants than the general population. A study in 2000 also showed that a history of preadolescent sexual abuse tripled the risk of drug use disorders.

Many other studies have corroborated these studies, showing that preadolescent sexual abuse is a risk factor for substance abuse later in life. The most important of these is the seminal CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experience Study.

A Cruel Misapplication of ORT

Environmental and genetic factors should influence how closely a patient's opioid use is monitored. However, a history of experiencing preadolescent sexual abuse does not mean a person will necessarily develop an OUD. It is only a risk factor. It does not determine the outcome of using opioids, although it may partially indicate the level of monitoring, support, and education that would be appropriate.

It is a cruel misapplication of the ORT to use a background of sexual abuse as the only criterion to assess whether a patient should receive opioid therapy. The ORT is an important tool in mitigating harm that prescribing opioids could cause. It should not be weaponized to justify denying people in pain appropriate therapy. 

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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 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 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.

Mother Who Lost Son to OxyContin Vindicated by Purdue Settlement

By Mark Kreidler, Kaiser Health News

In the 15 years since she lost her son to a single OxyContin pill, Barbara Van Rooyan has had but one up-close look at the people representing the company that made it.

It was in a small courthouse in Abingdon, Va., where Van Rooyan and other relatives of OxyContin victims gathered for a sentencing hearing in 2007. Three executives of Purdue Pharma had pleaded guilty to federal charges related to their misbranding and marketing of the powerful opioid. The company had pleaded guilty as well.

Van Rooyan and the others in her group spoke during the sentencing, giving voice to their grief and their pain. They wanted the executives sent to jail for knowingly expanding an opioid crisis fast engulfing the country.

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Instead, Purdue paid fines totaling $634 million. The executives served no time. The company was allowed to continue aggressively marketing its product, and the following year, sales of OxyContin reached $2 billion.

From 1999 to 2017, more than 700,000 people in the U.S. died of drug overdoses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2017, nearly 68% of the more than 70,000 recorded overdose deaths involved opioids, mostly illicit opioids such as fentanyl and heroin.

“I never really thought a whole lot about evil before this all happened,” Van Rooyan said recently, seated on a couch in the living room of her Irvine, Calif., home. “But to see this kind of malevolence or disregard for human life — I don’t know what else to call it but evil.”

The outcome in that Virginia courthouse was a far cry from last week’s news of a tentative mass settlement of many of the 2,000-plus lawsuits against the company, which could total upward of $12 billion and result in Purdue’s dissolution.

The potential settlement amount would include $3 billion from the Sackler family, owners of Purdue, whose fortune is estimated at $13 billion. The family has amassed that money over the past two decades, largely by selling OxyContin, an opioid painkiller.

‘The Lid Is Off’

Van Rooyan’s Purdue experience is a story of deception, sadness and frustration — yet when she tells it now, she emits a surprising spark of energy. That’s because Van Rooyan, part of the unlikely group of citizens who repeatedly took flailing swings at Purdue Pharma, is watching the giant fall.

Van Rooyan, who has studied the cases against Purdue closely, sees the paradox in the proffered settlement: Much of the payout would be financed by profits from the continued sale of OxyContin, under a new company that would be formed following a Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

But in some regard, she said, Purdue Pharma’s complicity in the opioid crisis has finally emerged into the general public’s view. “The world really knows now. They get it,” she said. “The lid is off, and all this stuff is bubbling out.”

That wasn’t the case on the night of July 4, 2004, when Van Rooyan and her husband, Kirk, got the call that changed their world. Barbara, then a professor of counseling at Folsom Lake College near Sacramento, was told that her son, Patrick Stewart, lay in a San Diego hospital, in a medically induced coma from which he was unlikely to emerge.

Patrick, a graduate of Oak Ridge High School in El Dorado Hills, Calif., and San Diego State University, died at age 24.

His friends told Barbara they had attended an Independence Day party at which someone offered her son an OxyContin pill, telling him it “was kind of like a muscle relaxant and it was FDA approved, so it was safe,” she said. Patrick, who had also consumed a couple of beers, was opioid intolerant and suffered respiratory failure in his sleep.

Barbara Van Rooyan holds picture of her son, Kirk

Barbara Van Rooyan holds picture of her son, Kirk

“At the time,” Van Rooyan said, “all I knew about Oxy was that Rush Limbaugh had been addicted to it.”

She was about to learn a lot more.

OxyContin Abuse

Van Rooyan channeled her grief through intense research into Oxy’s vast potential for damage despite the company’s sales pitches to the contrary. A slow-release pain treatment with a heavy dose of the narcotic oxycodone, it could be easily crushed or dissolved for a more intense and addictive high. Rampant abuse already had begun to be reported, particularly in the Appalachian area, author Beth Macy wrote in her national bestseller “Dopesick.”

Later in 2004, Van Rooyan found Ed Bisch, a Philadelphia man who had begun a website to expose Oxy abuse in the wake of his teenage son’s death. The following year, Van Rooyan and her husband, a plastic surgeon, petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to require that OxyContin be made more abuse-resistant, and that its use be strictly limited to severe pain.

“This was an exhausting process, which she and Kirk did as a labor of love to try to save others,” Bisch recalled.

Van Rooyan became the California arm of a grassroots movement known as RAPP — Relatives Against Purdue Pharma. The group, originally just four in number, protested at physician meetings funded by pharmaceutical companies and testified before Congress. Van Rooyan enlisted the help of U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who wrote the FDA on her behalf and later sent Van Rooyan a letter of commendation.

But most members of Congress did not reply to Van Rooyan’s letters, she said. The FDA said its review needed more time — which turned out to be eight years. By then, Purdue already had reformulated OxyContin to make it more abuse resistant and to renew its patent, but the FDA declined to restrict its use to managing severe pain.

Van Rooyan pressed on, but for a long while, the opioid crisis felt to her like a topic hiding in plain sight. And fighting Purdue while still grieving the loss of son Patrick was taking a toll.

“Her determination was tireless,” Bisch said, “but eventually the frustration burned us out.”

And then came the turn.

A rash of high-profile opioid overdoses and deaths, from actor Heath Ledger to Tom Petty to Prince, put the topic squarely in the public eye — and 15 years after the death of Van Rooyan’s son, Purdue Pharma and other drugmakers were suddenly on the run.

(Editor’s note: Ledger, Petty and Prince all died from a lethal mix of opioids and other drugs that were apparently obtained on the street.)

Wants Purdue Settlement Spent on Treatment

Van Rooyan tracks every development related to Purdue, including a lawsuit in New York that alleges members of the Sackler family have been offloading their fortunes into private or offshore accounts to shield them from a settlement.

But she’s not out for vengeance. Her goals have changed.

“Do I want the records to be public? Do I want these people to have their business shut down? Yes, I do,” she said. “But more than vindictiveness, I want that money of theirs to go to treatment and rehab. If that happens, something good can come out of it.”

If she has a regret, it is that the case in Virginia ended in 2007 with no more than a fine. “If that result had been different — if people had gone to jail — it could have changed the trajectory of this,” she said.

Ana Venegas for KHN

Ana Venegas for KHN

But momentum finally appears to be gathering, and Van Rooyan finds herself identified as one of the trailblazers of the anti-OxyContin movement. She spends little time dwelling on that. Instead, she quotes her younger son, Andrew, who told her, “We didn’t want any of this — this is just the hand we were dealt. We need to play the cards the best we can.”

“She’s just a really strong person,” said Kirk Van Rooyan, who has been with Barbara throughout the ordeal, though he is not Patrick’s biological father. “There have been times when I’d think to myself, ‘How would I be doing if I were in her shoes?’ And the answer usually is, ‘Not as well as she’s doing.’”

Van Rooyan, a longtime artist, now spends much of her time volunteering with veterans in Orange County, Calif., helping them get back into the workforce and using art therapy to help them express themselves.

The art is special to Van Rooyan, she said, because it is part of what saved her in the aftermath of her son’s death.

“Patrick was the one who suggested I take my first class,” she said. After a few delays, she finally enrolled. It was about a month before that Fourth of July in 2004.

Kaiser Health News is a nonprofit news service covering health issues. It is an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation, which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

One in Four Adults in England Take Addictive Meds

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Nearly 12 million people – about one in four adults in England -- are taking addictive prescription drugs to treat depression, anxiety, insomnia or chronic pain, according to a new review by Public Health England (PHE).

The review takes a cautionary view on the use of five drug classes – opioids, antidepressants, benzodiazepines, gabapentinoids, and so-called “z-drugs” such as zolpidem, zopiclone and zaleplon.

“The medicines we looked at help to make millions of people every year feel better and recover from their illness. Doctors can prescribe them because there is good evidence that they work, but they do have some risks,” the PHE report found.

Benzodiazepines, z-drugs, opioids and gabapentinoids are associated with dependence and withdrawal, while there’s a risk of withdrawal with antidepressants. When the drugs are taken in combination or in high doses, there is also risk of respiratory depression and overdose.  

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About half the patients prescribed the drugs in England had been taking them for at least a year — a sign of dependence. But the report cautions doctors not to abruptly discontinue the drugs and to taper them gradually, if at all.

“There is a view that a sub-population of chronic pain patients can be prescribed long-term opioids at relatively stable doses so that their analgesia and functioning can be maintained with good adherence and tolerable side-effects,” the report found.

“We do not want to put anyone off safely using medicines that could help them. Stopping or limiting the use of medicines could also cause harm, including increasing the risk of suicide or making people try to get medicines or illegal alternatives from less safe sources, such as illegal websites or drug dealers.”

Increasing Use of Antidepressants and Gabapentinoids

Antidepressants were prescribed to about 7.3 million people in England or 17% of the adult population. Opioids were prescribed to 5.6 million patients, followed by gabapentinoids (1.5 million), benzodiazepines (1.4 million) and z-drugs (1 million). Prescriptions for opioids, benzodiazepines and z-drugs are dropping, while the use of antidepressants and gabapentinoids is growing. 

Gabapentinoids such as pregabalin (Lyrica) and gabapentin (Neurontin) were originally developed to treat epilepsy, but the drugs are increasingly prescribed in the UK to treat neuropathy and other types of chronic pain. PHE researchers found only marginal evidence that they are effective for pain and alarming signs that they are being misused. 

“Gabapentinoids have come to be used for a wider range of indications than is supported by the evidence or their licensing, and they have sometimes been prescribed in place of opioids or benzodiazepines in the likely-mistaken belief that they are less liable to misuse or dependence, and lack of awareness of the withdrawal problems that can arise when prescribing is stopped,” the report said. 

Prescriptions for opioids and gabapentinoids were 1.6 times higher in parts of England with more poverty. People in poor areas are also more likely to be prescribed medicines for longer periods. Prescription rates for women are about 1.5 times higher than for men. Prescription rates also increased with age.

Johnson & Johnson Verdict Will Harm Chronic Pain Patients

By Barby Ingle, PNN Columnist

This week an Oklahoma judge ruled that Johnson & Johnson helped fuel the state’s opioid crisis and ordered the company to pay $572 million in damages.

I watched the entire 7 weeks of the Oklahoma trial and hoped that Judge Thad Balkman would get this right. I do not believe that he did. Johnson & Johnson may have the funds available to pay such a big penalty, but what about the healthcare providers, pharmacies, insurers, FDA, DEA and drug abusers who also played a role in causing the crisis?

This verdict shows that pain patients in America are once again being overlooked for the lives of drug addicts. Both problems need to be addressed: addiction and chronic pain.

I am a chronic pain patient who has been mistreated, undertreated, overtreated and misdiagnosed over the years. Do I think the $572 million is going to make a difference in my care or other pain patients? No, I don’t. We have already seen patients commit suicide because they were taken off opioid medications that were helping them cope with life and manage their pain.

The insurance companies won’t cover the other treatments and for some patients who have tried those treatments and failed, opioids were the only thing giving them quality of life.

Now we see a rise in the suicide rate and overdoses are still high. And where is the problem really coming from? Street drugs.

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How is a manufacturer of opioids held liable, but people who chose to abuse drugs are not held accountable? Is it because they can’t make money off poor people?

The Oklahoma verdict is not holding the right people accountable by any reasonable standard. It distorts the public nuisance law beyond recognition and will take away more options and choices from pain patients. This is only the start. Nearly 2,000 other opioid lawsuits are awaiting trial.

Why force these pharmaceutical companies into settlements? Why force an industry that saves millions of lives to do this? We need the industry to keep working on treatments. Less than 5% of the 7,000 rare diseases have any treatment options available. Are these lives less valuable than addicts’ lives? We need to stop forsaking one life for another.

I for one hope that Johnson & Johnson appeals for the sake of the pain community and for the sake of all who need pain medications -- be it for an acute situation such as kidney stones, a shattered pelvis or a chronic illness such as Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy, arachnoiditis, sickle cell or lupus.

I don’t believe that the pharmaceutical industry started, fueled or conspired to create the largest public health crisis of our time. I don’t believe there is an opioid epidemic. Addiction does affect millions of people but in many cases the help they need has not been provided. Billions of dollars in federal funding, including grants from President Trump’s opioid initiatives, haven’t been fully set up or spent to make a difference.

I believe it's up to the providers and pharmacists to tell us about the risks associated with opioids. They do in most cases. We as chronic pain patients want to have all options on the table. It's going to take a multi-modal approach that will have to start with human behavior and people being responsible for their own actions.

Insurance companies are already using tactics such as step therapy, prior authorization and stall tactics to prevent people from getting proper treatment. This is being done to both the addiction and chronic pain communities. It saves insurers millions of dollars, yet they are not being held accountable for care that is being denied.

For those in pain it's important to have opioids available and it’s not a simple matter of pharmaceutical companies being all bad and responsible for everything that happens to society.

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Barby Ingle lives with reflex sympathetic dystrophy (RSD), migralepsy and endometriosis. Barby is a chronic pain educator, patient advocate, and president of the International Pain Foundation. She is also a motivational speaker and best-selling author on pain topics.

More information about Barby can be found at 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.

Is Ketamine an Opioid?

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

A drug used to treat depression and pain is being touted as possible solution to the opioid crisis.

This week a South Carolina drug maker said it would partner with a medical device company to sell ketamine in take home medication bags that can be administered by an ambulatory pain pump. The idea is to give patients recovering from surgery a safer alternative to opioids.

“We are proud to partner with InfuTronix Solutions to deliver opioid-free pain medication to patients across the country,” Nephron Pharmaceuticals CEO Lou Kennedy said in a statement. “The overuse of opioids is a crisis in America. Non-narcotic pain management is a cost-saving way that companies like ours can help save lives.”

Non-narcotic? Opioid-free?

That’s not what a team of researchers at Stanford University concluded last year after studying how ketamine works in the brain. In a small clinical study, they gave a dozen patients diagnosed with depression a combination of ketamine and naltrexone – an opioid-receptor blocker. To their surprise, naltrexone stopped ketamine from working as an antidepressant.

In effect, the researchers discovered that ketamine works just like oxycodone, hydrocodone and other painkillers – by activating opioid receptors in the brain. 

“Everything that I was taught, and everything that I’ve always taught my students — all of the evidence supports the fact that ketamine is not an opioid,” said lead author Boris Heifets, MD, a clinical assistant professor of anesthesiology, perioperative and pain medicine. “I was really surprised at the results.”

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“And the results were so clear that we ended the study early to avoid exposing additional patients to the ineffective combination treatment,” said co-lead author Nolan Williams, MD, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral science.

The Stanford research, published in The American Journal of Psychiatry, caught psychiatrists and pain management experts by surprise. Some urged caution about the long-term use of ketamine until more can be learned about potential side effects such as addiction. Some depressed patients taken off ketamine have shown signs of withdrawal and became suicidal.

“Given the rapid relapse and potential suicide risk, it is hard to know what to recommend to clinicians. Should they really continue to use the agent beyond an acute course? For how long? In whom?” Alan Schatzberg, MD, a Stanford professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, warned in a commentary. “The drug’s opioid properties need to be considered when considering how best to use it.”

‘A Black Eye to Ketamine’

Talk like that has given ketamine a bad rap, according to experts at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. They’ve published a commentary of their own, defending the use of ketamine as a necessary treatment for depression that doesn’t respond to typical antidepressants.

“A (Stanford) study done late last year delivered a black eye to ketamine, and as a result of the coverage, there was a wholesale acceptance by both potential patients and physicians that ketamine is an opioid,” says Adam Kaplin, MD, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins.

“This is most worrisome if people continue to think this way, particularly in the wake of the opioid epidemic; clinicians won’t refer patients for a treatment, despite that it has been shown to be incredibly effective for many patients with treatment-resistant depression.”

Kaplin says there is ample evidence that ketamine sticks to NMDA receptors in the brain that are involved in learning and memory. Because these NMDA receptors are found together with opioid receptors, Kaplin says it’s no surprise that the can meddle with one another, like interference picked up on a phone call or static on the radio.

“This interference and cross-talk does not mean that ketamine is an opioid, and to wrongly label it as such could eventually keep patients from essential antidepressant medications that could make a huge difference in their quality of life,” said Kaplin, who plans on opening a ketamine clinic.

The debate over whether ketamine is an opioid comes at a time when its use is expanding.  Ketamine was approved by the FDA in 1970 solely as a surgical anesthetic to be taken intravenously or by injection. But a growing number of clinics now offer off-label infusions of ketamine to treat depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and difficult chronic pain conditions such as Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS).

Demand has grown so much there are reports of ketamine shortages. Although ketamine itself is inexpensive, the infusions can cost several hundred dollars and are not covered by insurance.

Ketamine Nasal Spray

Not until this year did the Food and Drug Administration approve the use of ketamine to treat depression, when it okayed a nasal spray (Spravato) made by Janssen Pharmaceuticals that contains a ketamine compound.

The FDA approved Spravato even though 2 out of 3 short term trials failed to prove its effectiveness. The spray was effective in a longer trial, but only when taken with a conventional antidepressant.

Because of the risk of abuse and side effects, Spravato can only be administered in a doctor’s office, where patients can be observed for two hours after taking a dose. A single dose will cost about $900.

The FDA has called the herbal supplement kratom an opioid because it acts on opioid receptors, but the agency has not taken that step with ketamine. Given current attitudes about opioids, it’s fair to say the FDA would have never approved Spravato if it was considered an opiate.

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In addition to its medical uses, ketamine is used as a recreational party drug – known as “Special K” -- because it can cause hallucinations and intense dream-like states.

Whether taken to get high or to treat pain and depression, it’s clear that ketamine is a potent drug that has both harms and benefits. And experts say it needs to be viewed with caution until we know with more certainty how it works.

“Unfortunately, when one approaches ketamine as another antidepressant rather than a drug of abuse, this type of trap is easy to fall into, and in the end, such mistakes can be catastrophic,” Schatzberg said in his commentary. “We have witnessed four decades of supposedly new and safer opioids that have turned out often to be, if anything, even more abusable and lethal."