Discovery of Brain Protein Could Lead to New Chronic Pain Treatments

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Researchers have identified a protein in the brain that appears to play a prominent role in the maintenance of long-term pain -- a discovery that could lead to new treatments that stop short-term acute pain from progressing to chronic pain.

The protein RGS4 (Regulator of G protein signaling 4) is found in brain circuits that process pathological pain, mood and motivation.

"Our research reveals that RGS4 actions contribute to the transition from acute and sub-acute pain to pathological pain states and to the maintenance of pain," says Venetia Zachariou, PhD, a professor in The Friedman Brain Institute at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City.

"Because chronic pain states affect numerous neurochemical processes and single-target drugs are unlikely to work, it's exciting to have discovered a multifunctional protein that can be targeted to disrupt the maintenance of pain."


In studies on genetically modified mice, Zachariou and her colleagues found that genetic inactivation of RGS4 did not affect acute pain, but it promoted recovery from nerve injuries, chemotherapy-induced neuropathy and peripheral inflammation. Mice lacking RGS4 developed all the expected symptoms of a nerve injury, but recovered within 3 weeks and returned to physical activity.

The transition from acute to chronic pain is accompanied by numerous adaptations in immune, glial and neuronal cells, many of which are still not well understood. Chronic pain patients experience a number of debilitating symptoms besides pain, such as sensory deficits, depression and loss of motivation

Researchers believe future drugs that target RGS4 could prevent acute pain from transitioning to chronic pain. Currently available medications for chronic pain only treat the symptoms – not the underlying condition – and have major side effects.

Dr. Zachariou's laboratory is conducting further investigation into the actions of RGS4 in the spinal cord and mood-regulating areas of the brain to better understand the mechanism by which the protein affects sensory and pain symptoms.

Their findings are published online in The Journal of Neuroscience.

The New Norm for Chronic Pain Patients

By Rochelle Odell, PNN Columnist 

Come the new year, I will start my 28th year battling Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS). Like so many high impact pain patients, I have been experiencing a pain flare that isn't improving and prevents me from doing many tasks. I am praying it will get better and not become my new norm.  

I have been a palliative care patient for a couple of months now. Palliative care is not what many people think it is. My meds did not get increased and I still live at home. A home health RN visits me twice a week, takes my vital signs, asks how I am doing, how is my pain, and what doctor do I see next.  

I was evaluated this time last year for Transitional Care Management or TCM. It’s usually for patients getting out of the hospital and is short term -- only two to three months at the most. A medical doctor evaluated me and told me I was “high functioning” but needed assistance. High functioning? I have no help and only have me to depend on. I have to function to some degree just to survive. 

My RN tells me palliative care is meant to help patients be as comfortable as possible. They used to be able to give their patients pain meds, but now all they can give is Toradol, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug, which does me no good because I am deathly allergic to NSAID's and aspirin. She is compassionate and caring and says what is happening to me and others in pain is "Just not right." I have to agree with her. 

Perhaps part of this new norm is reading so much negativity coming from our not so illustrious leaders in DC, along with blurbs from the CDC and the FDA. To me it appears to be getting worse as opposed to getting better.  

Is my increased pain clouding what I am reading? I don't believe so. Many of us suffering from high impact pain -- about 20 million Americans – are unable to get opioid medication. Even those suffering from life ending cancer are being turned away. That is nothing but plain cruelty. 


There is a core group of pain patients, probably numbering a few thousand, that is trying to change things. We call and write our elected officials and various government offices that have deemed it their duty to destroy our lives piece by piece.  Those that are physically able can attend a Don't Punish Pain Rally. There is another DPP rally coming up October 16. I have only been able to attend one rally. It's hard when one is in extreme pain and with limited funds to be able to travel to the rallies.  

Why Are We Being Treated This Way?

What is happening to us? Why are our physicians, those trained to treat and care for us, turning their backs on us? Why are we being shunned? Why are we being treated like we did something wrong?  

Why are people who abuse drugs being treated with compassion and care but not us? They hurt their families, they steal, they destroy their bodies, they seemingly don't care. We don't do any of that. Our pain is caused by diseases we never asked for. We care, we want to live and we want to participate in life.   

They get clean needles, clean rooms to shoot up in, free Narcan, and in Canada they are giving Dilaudid (hydromorphone) to those who abuse drugs. Dilaudid is an opioid used for treating severe pain. I was on Dilaudid three years ago. Not anymore.  

I just read about a county in England that is going to provide medical grade heroin twice a day to drug addicts. Why? The police are hoping it will lower crime in the area. I bet they have lines form they never expected.  

So now those who abuse are getting free heroin. Yet pain patients are kicked to the curb. How can physicians care for one who abuses their body but refuse to treat a human being suffering from intractable pain? I don't mean to sound so cold when it comes to those who abuse, but people in pain are suffering unrelenting pain because of them.   

If we ask for meds, ask for referrals or refuse a treatment we know will have adverse effects, we are accused of being non-compliant and dropped by our doctors. I believe the loss of compassion from our physicians is why many of us are having these unexplained pain flares that are becoming our new norm.  

I have been reading on social media that patients on opioids who move or are dropped are finding it impossible to get a new primary care physician. I saw my PCP last week and asked her about it. She emphatically told me "they" would not accept new patients who are on or had been on opioids. I was afraid to ask who “they” were, but am assuming it's all or most of the doctors in this area. 

I am sorry for all my friends in pain and for those I don't know who are in pain. I am sorry we are being treated like addicts. That those in healthcare would turn a blind eye to us. My heart breaks for those who feel the only solution is to take their life to end the pain. That is so wrong. Human beings are being pushed to that point by those elected to represent us and those in healthcare who are supposed to care but don't. I am so very sorry. 


Rochelle Odell lives in California.

Pain News Network invites other readers to share their stories with us.  Send them to:

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.

The Complex Relationship Between Alcohol and Pain

(Editor’s note: A recent PNN survey found that nearly 20% of chronic pain patients used alcohol for pain relief. Many do so because they lost access to opioid medication. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) recently published this article on pain and alcohol, and invited PNN to republish it.)

The relationship between alcohol and pain is a complicated one. It is a common belief that alcohol dulls pain, yet research shows that sometimes alcohol can make pain worse.

Understanding the complex relationship between alcohol and pain is an important area of research for NIAAA. In 2016, about 20 percent of adults (50 million people) in the United States had chronic pain, defined as pain most days in the previous 6 months. Recent studies suggest that around 1 in 4 adults in chronic pain reports self-medicating with alcohol, and 43–73 percent of people with alcohol use disorder (AUD) report experiencing chronic pain.


An improved understanding of the effects of alcohol on pain, the role of pain in alcohol misuse, and potential interactions between alcohol and opioids during pain treatment hopefully will improve treatment outcomes for patients in pain.

Alcohol has been found to alleviate physical pain, but it requires doses consistent with binge drinking to do so. Binge drinking is defined as drinking enough to bring blood alcohol concentration (BAC) levels to 0.08 percent, which typically occurs after 4 drinks for women and 5 drinks for men in about 2 hours.

A recent analysis of the findings from 18 studies on alcohol and pain concluded that a BAC of 0.08 percent produces a small increase in pain threshold and a reduction in pain intensity. These findings could help explain why some people with chronic pain drink excessively.

Unfortunately, reaching BAC levels this high also is associated with unintentional injuries, violence, traffic fatalities, and other consequences. And long-term excessive drinking makes physical pain worse. In a group of 30 men in treatment for AUD, sensitivity to pain increased early in abstinence.

People also sometimes use alcohol in an effort to cope with emotional pain. Unfortunately, as with physical pain, the temporary reprieve alcohol might offer gives way to an increase in emotional pain when the alcohol wears off.

Chronic alcohol misuse can lead to the emergence of a negative emotional state, known as hyperkatifeia, in between episodes of drinking. The resulting irritability, dysphoria, and anxiety fuel further alcohol use. As with physical pain, drinking alcohol to cope with emotional pain makes the situation worse. (For more information, see “Alcohol and ‘Deaths of Despair.’”)

Opioid analgesics commonly are prescribed to treat physical pain and often are misused to cope with emotional pain. Used separately, alcohol and opioids can cause overdose deaths by suppressing areas in the brain stem that control breathing. Using alcohol and opioids together amplifies the danger. Research suggests that alcohol plays a role in around 1 in 5 deaths from opioid overdoses.

Because the mechanisms by which alcohol and opioids reduce physical and emotional pain overlap, regular use of one drug diminishes the effects of the other. For instance, when researchers examined opioid pain medication use after abdominal surgery in more than 4,000 patients, they found that frequent alcohol consumption was associated with increased opioid use for pain control.

Similarly, in rats allowed to drink alcohol for 8 weeks, opioids became less effective at reducing physical pain. Withdrawal from opioids, like withdrawal from alcohol, leads to the emotional misery of hyperkatifeia.

As part of the National Institutes of Health Helping to End Addiction Long-Term (HEAL) initiative, NIAAA is encouraging studies to develop and validate biomarkers of comorbid alcohol misuse and chronic pain and that address alcohol misuse in the context of chronic pain management.

NIAAA also encourages research on the impact of alcohol and sleep disturbances on pain through a new funding opportunity. These efforts, among others, should shed light on how alcohol affects pain and vice versa and could have implications for both treating AUD and managing chronic pain.

How Awareness Can Help Calm Your Pain

By Dr. David Hanscom, PNN Columnist

Anxiety and anger are major aspects of the chronic pain experience. In this state, your mind is full of racing thoughts and vivid imagery, and it’s hard to focus on anything but you and your pain.

They block your awareness of other’s needs. It becomes a challenge for friends, family, and coworkers – anyone – to connect with you. If you’re touchy and constantly on edge, it’s exhausting for others to be in your presence.

Having a good support system is an important part of your recovery from chronic pain because positive relationships have a calming effect. But now you are driving people away.

Awareness is a powerful and necessary tool in breaking through this barrier. What you are not aware of can and will control you.

I have found it helpful to look at awareness from four different perspectives: environmental, emotional, judgement and ingrained thought patterns.


Environmental awareness is placing your attention on a single sensation – taste, touch, sound, temperature, etc. What you are doing is switching sensory input from racing thoughts to another sensation. This is the basis of mindfulness – fully experiencing what you are doing in the moment.

I use an abbreviated version that I call “active meditation,” which is placing my attention on a specific sensory input for 5 to 10 seconds. It is simple and can be done multiple times per day.  

Emotional awareness is more challenging. It often works for a while, but then it doesn’t. When you are suppressing feelings of anxiety, your body’s chemistry is still off and full of stress hormones. This translates into physical symptoms.

Allowing yourself to feel all of your emotions is the first step in healing because you can’t change what you can’t feel. Everyone that is alive has anxiety. It is how we survive.

Judgment is a major contributor to creating mental chaos in our lives. Dr. David Burns in his book “Feeling Good” outlines 10 cognitive distortions that are a core part of our upbringing. Some of them include:

  • Labeling yourself or others

  • “Should” thinking – the essence of perfectionism

  • Focusing on the negative

  • Minimizing the positive

  • Catastrophizing

  • Emotional reasoning

Becoming aware of these errors in thinking allows you to substitute more rational thought patterns.

Ingrained thought patterns are the most problematic to be aware of. Recent neuroscience research has revealed that thoughts, concepts and ideals become embedded in our brains and are just as real to you as the chair you are sitting in.

That is why people engage in aggressive behavior when their belief systems are challenged. We are all programmed by our past. Your thoughts and beliefs are your version of reality.

Becoming Aware of Your ‘Unawareness’

The first step in becoming aware is realizing that you are unaware. This never ends because there will always be areas of our thinking and behavior that are not consistent with the needs of the situation. 

When I look back on my life’s journey, one of the most disturbing aspects of it is realizing the extent of my unawareness. For instance, when I was in my full-blown obsessive mode, I didn’t have a clue. I recall one time when a friend referred to my “obsessive nature.”  I didn’t know what the word really meant and was certain it didn’t apply to me.

How can you tap into your unawareness? One way is to look for cues in certain behaviors and attitudes, which may mean we’re out of touch with how we’re feeling.  Some examples: 

  • Having a rigid opinion about almost anything: religion, politics, someone’s character, etc.

  • Being told you are stubborn or “not listening”

  • Interrupting someone to offer an opinion before you’ve heard theirs

  • Insisting on being right.

  • Thinking about something besides what you are doing.

  • Judging yourself or others negatively or positively.

  • Feeling anxious or angry

  • Giving advice when not asked for it

  • Thinking you are wiser than your children

  • Acting on impulse.

This list is infinite. If one or more resonates with you, it’s probably time to take a step back so that you can respond appropriately to a given person or situation. This is the essence of awareness.

Another clue of unawareness -- not listening -- is one that I discovered with others’ help. My weakness in this area became readily apparent when I attended a parents’ meeting at my daughter’s school.

I will preface this story by saying that I had always considered myself a good listener. It was one of my major personal identities. My wife has not always agreed with that viewpoint. Of course, I did not listen to her.

At the parents’ meeting, we did an exercise where we had to write down on a piece of paper a characteristic that another parent could “work on.”  We could write to two parents anonymously.

Most parents received one or two slips of paper. I received twelve (out of 18) that all said the same thing: “David, you don’t know how to listen.”  

That was a very difficult moment for me. I found it extremely hard to not become defensive. But how could I disagree with 12 people?  I came to accept that they were right, especially in retrospect. It was a trait that I truly could not see. I simply had to trust a group of people who I knew did not have an agenda and had my best interests at heart. 

After that meeting, I came to realize how not listening had interfered with my general awareness. It’s one of the central tenets of awareness: You cannot be aware if you cannot listen.

Practicing Awareness

Understanding and practicing awareness is the first step in reprogramming your brain. It’s the easiest technique to explain and the most difficult to consistently use. Environmental awareness is the foundational first step and spending as much time as possible doing “active meditation.” Regardless of where you are in your journey, being fully aware of stimuli coming into your brain will help calm you down.

When you are ready for the second level of emotional awareness, simply watch your emotions pass by and then pull yourself back into seeing, hearing and feeling, as quickly as possible. It is a little challenging, as emotions often evoke powerful reactions. Training yourself to be with these feelings instead of fighting them is a learned skill and may require some support from a professional.

The third level – judgement -- is a lifetime journey. The key is to be persistent in not judging yourself or others. A good starting point is understanding than whenever you place a positive or negative judgment on someone else, you have simply projected your view of yourself onto the other person. As you become aware of these cognitive distortions, you will be able to regain control of your life.

Remember that in the fourth level of ingrained patterns, it is impossible to see yourself through your own eyes. This is where resources such as psychologists, good friends, spouses, children, and seminars have to be utilized. The key is being willing to listen.

Becoming aware of everyone and everything around you is much more interesting and enjoyable than merely expressing and reinforcing your own views on life day in and day out.  


Dr. David Hanscom is a spinal surgeon who has helped hundreds of back pain sufferers by teaching them how to calm their central nervous systems without the use of drugs or surgery.

In his book Back in ControlHanscom shares the latest developments in neuroscience research and his own personal history with pain.

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.

Do Doctors Care?

By Katie Burge, Guest Columnist

Tell me... exactly when did it become acceptable for physicians to not only harm, but to actually contribute to a patient's demise by denying adequate, necessary medical care? 

I'm referring to the rising death rate among chronic pain patients, whose doctors have yielded to political pressure and reduced their patients’ doses of pain medication to the point that they are virtually useless or refused to continue prescribing pain medication at all -- regardless of diagnosis or need -- because they fear regulatory action if they continue treating pain with opioids.  

Am I missing something? Under the Hippocratic Oath, aren't physicians supposed to strive to do no harm?  Or should we just start calling it the Hypocritical Oath when it comes to people in pain?

You might think that denying opioids to folks can only be a positive thing, but for those of us who suffer from severe, round-the-clock pain that only responds to opioids, this scenario is a nightmare.  Losing access to the only thing that lessens your pain can feel like a death sentence. And in some cases, it is.

Being forcibly tapered off opioids and then having to cope with the full brunt of your pain causes extreme stress, which can lead to heart attack and stroke.  Even worse, it causes some patients to lose hope of ever attaining help and commit suicide.

This almost happened to me last year. The really shocking thing is when I told a couple of my doctors that I was becoming increasingly suicidal because of pain, they just ignored me.

I guess they felt like if they acknowledged the reasons for my depression, they might have to address my pain. That is unacceptable to many physicians nowadays. I call this the "Ostrich" School of Medicine — where the doctors bury their heads in the sand whenever the topic of chronic pain comes up.

Many doctors have become so desensitized to pain and suffering that they seem to believe they're absolved of any responsibility when presented with a patient whose chronic pain is so severe that it only responds to opioids. They'll fall all over themselves trying to get away from us.


My longtime family doctor refuses to even discuss my chronic pain. And when pain management specialists see the catalog of all my conditions, they visibly cringe. It’s as though I make them feel threatened, when the real threat comes from bumbling bureaucrats attempting to prove that they aren't completely impotent when it comes to dealing with the opioid epidemic.

A major truth about the opioid epidemic is that these bureaucrats can't do a damn thing about recreational drug use, but they want their constituents to believe they can. So in a lame attempt at proving their political prowess, they put the squeeze on pain management physicians and blame vulnerable pain patients for other people's opioid abuse.

What really makes my jaw drop in astonishment is the fact that most doctors simply kowtow to this bureaucratic lunacy without even trying to advocate for their patients or their own right to treat patients to the full extent of their education and experience. Doctors should never be put in the position of having to choose between incarceration and providing compassionate medical care.

There aren't many courageous physicians left who will help somebody like me.  I did eventually find one who gives me about half the medication I need to get through a month and be able to function. This enabled me to survive my “suicidal” level of pain, but I wouldn't actually call it living. 

My round-the-clock pain is being treated with a short-acting opioid that I'm only allowed to take once every 8 hours, because the doctor says he's not "allowed" to prescribed the long-acting, time released opioids anymore. These extended relief medications provide much better, more even relief -- often at a lower dose than the immediate release, short-acting opioids.

My current drug regimen creates kind of an evil roller coaster effect, where I'm okay for 3 or 4 hours and then the pain spikes for the next 4 hours until I can take another dose. And then the roller coaster takes off all over again.

Over the past 20 years, I've tried every traditional and alternative treatment known to medical science. Some have been beneficial and some have not, but I've learned what is safe and effective for me. I just wish my doctor would take my word for it. I know I'll never be pain free and surgeons say they're unable to "fix" me, so pain management is the only option I have left.

I am alive today due to a combination of God's grace and the adrenaline created by a combination of righteous indignation and an intense passion to help other pain patients and educate the public about chronic pain.

If you are a pain patient or you love a pain patient, please speak up and be counted if you're not getting the treatment you deserve. Never give up!


Katie Burge lives in Mississippi. Katie has degenerative disc disease, spinal stenosis, spondylolisthesis, failed back syndrome, stenosis, osteoarthritis and fibromyalgia. 

Pain News Network invites other readers to share their stories with us. Send them to 

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.

Chronic Pain Accelerates Dementia

By Dr. Lynn Webster, PNN Columnist

In 2017, JAMA Internal Medicine published a study that found older people with chronic pain experience faster declines in memory and are more likely to develop dementia.  While prior research had shown a link between chronic pain and brain damage, this was one of the first studies to specifically suggest that chronic pain can cause dementia.

The authors reported that people aged 60 and over with persistent pain experienced a 9.2% more rapid decline in memory score when compared to people of the same age without chronic pain. This means that people with chronic pain may experience more difficulty in managing their finances, medications and social connections.


Dementia is a chronic condition of the brain that involves memory, personality and judgment. It is not a disease; it is a symptom of one or more diseases.

There are many types of dementia. Alzheimer’s disease is considered to be the most common.

Dementia usually worsens over time if the underlying disease remains static or progresses, as is the case with many chronic pain conditions.

There are an estimated 20 million Americans with high impact (the most severe) chronic pain who may be experiencing accelerated decline in cognition due to their pain. The amount of dementia appears to be associated with the severity and duration of chronic pain. Undertreated or untreated chronic pain may accelerate dementia.

Chronic pain affects an even larger percentage of elderly adults (one in three) than the general population. Since the prevalence of chronic pain increases with age, the probability of experiencing dementia increases as well. However, the reasons for that go beyond aging itself.

Seniors are more likely to take multiple medications that can contribute to mental confusion. On average, elderly people take five or more prescriptions. They may also use over-the-counter medications, which adds to potential drug-associated mental compromise.

Opioids, in particular, have been implicated in cognitive impairment. However, a study published in 2016 suggests there is no difference in cognitive decline between people on opioids and those on nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. The study's implication is that pain, not opioids, leads to cognitive impairment.

Brain Fog

Chronic pain appears to affect the function and structure of the hippocampus. This is the region of the brain that involves learning, memory, and emotional processing.

One explanation for the mental decline associated with chronic pain is that various areas of the brain compete for attention. Attentional impairment compromises memory by diverting attention to the areas of the brain processing pain. In effect, the brain is multi-tasking and favoring the processing of pain over cognition. This may, in part, explain the clinical phrase “brain fog.”

The Australian Broadcasting Company's "All in the Mind" website explains that pain damages the brain in several ways, including a change in the size of the thalamus and a decrease in the amount of a neurotransmitter (gamma-aminobutyric acid) the brain produces. In other words, chronic pain changes the brain structurally and functionally.

The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain responsible for executive functions, such as cognition, social behavior, personality, and decision-making. It is also the part of the brain that modulates pain.

According to "All in the Mind," some researchers believe that chronic pain decreases the volume of the prefrontal cortex. Over time, brains damaged by pain lose the ability to handle pain — along with some of the personality attributes that make us who we are.

Brain Damage Can Be Reversed

The good news is that the brain damage caused by chronic pain can be reversed, at least to some extent. Unfortunately, the elderly are less likely to recover from dementia caused by chronic pain as compared with younger patients.

If pain is adequately treated, the brain may be able to regain its ability to function normally. A 2009 study of patients with chronic pain due to hip osteoarthritis showed reversal of brain changes when their pain was adequately treated. 

People who don’t have their acute pain managed are more likely to develop chronic pain. It is postulated that the changes in the brain that occur with chronic pain begin with the onset of acute pain. There is also some evidence that an individual’s genes may influence who is at greatest risk for developing brain damage from chronic pain and who is least likely to recover from it. 

Many people have criticized the concept of assessing pain as the 5th vital sign, and have called it a contributing factor for the opioid crisis. As I have said, pain may not be a vital sign, but it is vital that we assess it. Asking patients about their pain is critical to providing interventions that can mitigate the consequences of undertreated pain, including dementia. 


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.

The Visible Few Pain Patients

By Dr. Lynn Webster, PNN Columnist

I receive several emails a week from people who ask for help because their treatment options have been limited or eliminated. They are in terrible pain, and they don’t know what to do.

One such person, Sharon Berenfeld, MD, recently shared an experience she had visiting her doctor.

“Dr. Webster, I came across a publication of yours. It struck a nerve with me. My pain is intractable. I have tried everything,” she wrote. “Before the exam room door even closed, [my doctor] announced to me, ‘If you think I’m just here to refill your pills, you can leave now.'

"I left in tears. I was being judged and punished for having a complication from cancer treatment. I completely understand the opioid crisis. But I feel impotent to do anything."

Who Are the Visible Few?

Earlier this year, Fox News' three-part series, Treating America's Pain: Unintended Victims of the Opioid Crackdown, showed the terrifying circumstances of people in pain and doctors under siege. One individual’s decision to commit suicide as a result of the crackdown on opioid prescribing embodies the struggles of people in pain and their providers' inability to meet their needs.

The visible few are the small number of people whose stories have been heard by journalists, media consumers and government officials. Their stories reflect millions of Americans suffering from chronic pain who live in the shadows and are invisible to most of us. 

The needs of people in pain and the challenges providers face when treating them have been overshadowed by the government's attempts to deal with the opioid crisis. The well-intentioned CDC Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain has affected 20 million Americans with severe disabling pain.

It also is having consequences for everyone else in the healthcare system. Prescription opioids have been demonized and blamed for our current drug crisis.


Unintended Consequences

The CDC guideline was supposed to be voluntary. However, in practice, the guideline has been treated as a policy with the strength of a law, and it has had severe unintended consequences. Many people are worse off in its wake. Here is a summary of the most substantial effects of the guideline.

  • Providers feel pressured to reduce the amount of opioids that they prescribe, regardless of their patients' individual needs. About 70% of physicians have reduced their opioid prescribing or stopped it completely.

  • Insurance companies set prescription limits based on the guideline. In some cases, they override physicians' recommendations. That means insurers, rather than doctors, are making decisions about how to treat pain.

  • Pharmacy chains are also limiting the amount of opioids they dispense, based on the guideline rather than on doctors' prescriptions..

  • The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services have set dosage limits. Providers advocating for patients who need higher amounts must navigate a complicated appeals process.

  • State attorneys general have used the guideline to evaluate whether a doctor is prescribing for a legitimate medical purpose. Deviation from the guideline has been used to accuse doctors of criminal conduct.

  • In a desperate search for pain relief, some patients have turned to street drugs.

Where We Are Now

The CDC guideline has left a trail of misunderstanding in its path. Its authors acknowledged misapplication of the guideline in the New England Journal of Medicine, emphasizing that their intention was to provide guidance rather than to establish a mandate.

"Difficulties faced by clinicians in prescribing opioids safely and effectively, growing awareness of opioid-associated risks, and a public health imperative to address opioid overdose underscored the need for the guidance,” they wrote.

In a separate article in the JAMA Network, the guideline's authors said, “The number of people experiencing chronic pain is substantial, with U.S. prevalence estimated at 11.2% of the adult population. Patients should receive appropriate pain treatment based on careful considerations of the benefits and risks of treatment options.”

There are other signs of recognition that the guideline has been misinterpreted. For example, CDC Director Robert Redfield, MD, wrote in a letter to Health Professionals for Patients in Pain (HP3), “The CDC is working diligently to evaluate the impact of the guideline and clarify its recommendations to reduce unintended harm.”

The American Medical Association's House of Delegates passed a series of resolutions on the guideline at an interim meeting in November 2018.

“Physicians should not be subject to professional discipline, loss of board certification, loss of clinical privileges, criminal prosecution, civil liability, or other penalties or practice limitations solely for prescribing opioids at a quantitative level above the morphine milligram level thresholds found in the CDC guidelines for prescribing opioids,” the AMA delegates said.

There is also some light being shined on the issue in a report by The Pain Management Best Practices Inter-Agency Task Force.

“There is no one-size-fits-all approach when treating and managing patients with painful conditions. Individuals who live with pain are suffering and need compassionate, individualized and effective approaches to improving pain and clinical outcomes. This is a roadmap that is desperately needed to treat our nation’s pain crisis,” said Vanila Singh, MD, task force chair and chief medical officer of the HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health.

As the opioid odyssey continues, there are signs that the visible few are beginning to be heard. This is an important step to helping the invisible millions with chronic pain receive the care they deserve.


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.