The Power of the Pen

By Michael Emelio, Guest Columnist

It's my hope that this column can serve as a powerful example of the harm that can be caused when people are denied adequate pain management. And in so, I pray that it also serves as a lesson to doctors and is something that our lawmakers, CDC and DEA will take a moment to seriously consider.

To understand the full magnitude of the damage that's been caused, I implore you to read a guest column I wrote last year, in which I described how the opioid medication I take for intractable back pain was rapidly tapered to a lower dose, leaving me bedridden and disabled.

It's high time that the harm being inflicted on me and other innocent victims of the opioid crisis is both acknowledged and stopped!

While I can totally sympathize with a doctor's fear of repercussions from the DEA, there comes a point where it's no longer a valid or acceptable excuse. One of those points is when a doctor, with no medically valid reason, refuses to sufficiently treat a person's pain and it results in harm to that patient.

And when a doctor refuses to prescribe a reasonable opioid dose (especially one that is within the CDC opioid guideline) and it causes a patient's condition to significantly worsen, how are they not responsible for that harm?

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Speaking with other patients, I've been hearing a familiar story quite a bit lately. So much in fact, that it appears to be becoming an epidemic. Doctors with no medically valid reason are either failing or refusing to prescribe even within the CDC’s 90 MME guideline, while using the same old "well the DEA threatens to take our licenses away" excuse. 

Not only is it getting old, but it's getting people hurt and worse. And when I say that excuse is killing me, I may just mean literally!

Since the tapering started, I've gained 55 pounds and my blood sugar and cholesterol have soared to alarming rates. So in addition to all the things I can no longer do and my pain and suffering increasing, I'm now at risk of both heart disease and diabetes. Irrefutably, this is a direct result of being bedridden 24 hours a day due to the med cuts.

But it doesn't stop there. Adding insult to injury, these med cuts are also robbing me of the only chance I have to improve my condition.

Surgery Not An Option

It cannot be emphasized enough that I've seen several highly-acclaimed surgeons, who are absolutely unanimous in what options I have. They've all said the same thing: Surgery is not an option for me and due to the nature of my condition I should avoid any invasive procedures as they can make my pain worse. This includes spinal injections, radiofrequency ablation, spinal cord stimulators and pain pumps, to name a few.

They've all said that the only viable options I have left are pain meds and physical therapy. The latter is essential because “mobility is crucial to help reduce the pain and improve function.” And to slow my rate of deterioration, I should do “as much physical therapy as possible." 

So by denying me the ability to complete physical therapy due to his forced med cuts, my doctor is not only robbing me of my only chance for improvement, he is directly causing my condition to worsen at an accelerated rate. Despite explaining all of this to him, my doctor informs me that he still plans on reducing my meds even further!

On what planet does this make any sense whatsoever? When you consider all the aspects of my condition and the damage the previous met cuts have already caused, how can this be helpful in any way, yet be a necessary or even a reasonable course of action?

Especially when I'm only at 60 MME, which is considerably less than the CDC's 90 MME guideline. Furthermore, I've been a patient of his for over a year and a half and have proven to take my medications responsibly the entire time, as well as the previous 18 years I've been in pain management.

Because of the CDC guideline and the fear instilled by the DEA, my doctor is covering his ass and slowly killing me.
— Micahel Emelio

Think about this for a minute. I have a medical need for pain meds because of an incurable condition that is causing such severe intractable pain that I'm bedridden to the point that I struggle to care for myself properly. It’s also a condition where surgery and invasive procedures are not an option, all other methods and medications have failed, and the only chance for improvement is through physical therapy. Then add the fact that my health is in a serious state of decline as a direct result of the med cuts, and he still wants to cut them even more?

Unless you're in this boat yourself, you can't fathom the level of stress this causes. I'm literally afraid I may have a heart attack from it.

You have to understand the impact that just one more med cut would have on me. I live alone, have no one to help me, and with the dose I'm currently at, I'm already struggling most days just to microwave a TV dinner, yet alone clean my house or even care for myself properly. If he cuts my meds any further, the effect it will have on my life will be devastating.

As I sat in my car outside his office, the only thing I could think about was that if he reduces my meds any further, not only will my pain be unbearable, but I won't even be able to care for myself anymore. Being alone and poor, I only see two options at that point: street drugs or suicide. 

Make no mistake. That is the hand that is being forced on people when intractable pain is not treated!

Never in a million years could I have imagined being in this position. But sadly, this is my reality. And the truly astonishing part of it all is that he could stop all this damage and immensely change my life for the better tomorrow, simply by prescribing 2 more tablets a day, which would still be within the CDC guideline.

But no! Because of the CDC guideline and the fear instilled by the DEA, my doctor is covering his ass and slowly killing me. It's both staggering and terrifying knowing how much control he has over my life with just the swipe of his pen.

Which brings me to an interesting point. In medical school they teach about a thing they call the "power of the pen." It means to make sure that what they prescribe doesn't cause harm to the patient. I just wish my doctor realized that the power of the pen works both ways!

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Michael Emelio lives in Florida. Michael lives with severe degenerative disc disease, scoliosis and fibromyalgia. He has safely used opioid medication since 2001.

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

Chronic Pain Patients Are Collateral Damage of the Opioid Crisis

By Diana Franklin, Guest Columnist

I have been watching the news a lot lately. It seems like much of the coverage is devoted to the opioid crisis, and rightfully so. But I feel it’s a little one-sided.

I fully understand the issue with illegal drugs, doctors overprescribing, pharmaceutical companies flooding markets with powerful pills, and how all of that is a very big problem. I hate that so many are addicted and something needs to be done to stop it.

However, I also know that there are law abiding citizens in serious, legitimate pain that are getting swept up in the chaos and suffering because of it. These people feel like they're being punished and forgotten about. I know this, because I am one of them.

I had severe scoliosis as a kid. When I was 12, I was told it was progressing so quickly that I could end up bedridden or possibly dead by the age of 21. I had to have surgery to straighten and fuse a large portion of my spine with metal rods. Luckily, the surgery was a success.

When I was in my 30’s, one of the discs that hadn't been fused in my lower back slipped. A doctor did two laminectomies, where they shaved down the back side of the vertebrae. A year later, I had another surgery on the cervical spine in my neck.

These surgeries may have fixed the problem with the discs, but unfortunately the damage was done and I was left with severe nerve damage and in constant pain.

DIANA FRANKLIN

DIANA FRANKLIN

I saw a pain management specialist and tried several different pain medications until I found something that helped. I was still very limited in what I could do, but I was at least able to get out of the house on occasion, though I was unable to work and had to go on disability.

While battling these health issues, I lost my husband and had to find a way to survive with my two sons. This was made even more difficult when my pain started getting worse. I got an MRI which revealed that I also have degenerative disc disease. There is very little space between the few discs in my lower back that aren't fused, meaning that bone is rubbing on bone, crushing the nerves and causing tremendous pain.

With oxycodone, I was still in a great deal of pain, but as long as I didn't get up and do too much, I could push through the day. I always took less than needed and tried hard to manage the pain any other way before I took my pills. I had regular drug tests, per my doctor’s protocol, to ensure that I wasn't taking too much.

I have seen this doctor for 20 years and he always went above and beyond, with all of his patients, to ensure that he only gave them what they need to control their pain without becoming addicted.

Recently, the government stopped allowing my doctor to prescribe any opioids, leaving many of his patients, including myself, without any pain medication at all. Due to the pain and nerve damage, I have trouble walking, my hands and arms will hurt and swell up, and my back feels like it's being crushed. I have severe migraines and often end up crying due to the pain.

I can hardly get up to go across the room without help and every step causes extreme pain. I can't think straight and wind up exhausted because every ounce of energy I have goes to fighting the pain.

Because there is so much damage to my spine, managing the pain is my only real option. The few other options I have aren't covered by insurance and there’s no guarantee that they will help. They could possibly make my situation worse.

My life has gone from enjoying my kids and young grandkids to being essentially trapped in my recliner, not knowing how much longer I can live with the pain.

I have been strongly against illegal drugs all my life. I believe that the government should do what it can to make sure criminals aren't getting their hands on these medications and crackdown on doctors that overprescribe them.

However, by taking pain medication away from everyone, they have made me collateral damage. Patients like me, even those with cancer, are being left without any pain medication at all. Some have committed suicide because they just can't handle the pain.

I am trying hard to fight against thoughts like that, but it is difficult when every moment is spent in excruciating pain. Something has to be done to allow doctors to prescribe pain medicine to those who truly need it, without fear of government prosecution. Put in strict regulations, drug testing and criteria that people have to meet, so that those in legitimate pain can still be given the lifesaving pain relief that they desperately need.

I don't have all the answers, but I know that something needs to be done and we need to be heard. Please, don't sit by as so many suffer. People like me fight our battles every day just to survive, but it gets harder every second that we're in blinding, unthinkable pain.

People talk all the time about the people who die in overdoses. That is indeed a tragedy, but what no one wants to talk about are the people dying simply because they can't cope with the amount of pain that they're in. We need a solution and we need it now! More than anything, we need a loud voice to be heard above all the other shouting that seems to be surrounding this issue.

Please help me get the word out, not just about my story, but so many other stories out there of people in pain. I want as many people as possible, especially lawmakers, to see this and understand what we go through. Please like and share with everyone you can.

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Diana Franklin lives in Texas.

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

New Spinal Discs Grown from Stem Cells

By Steve Weakley

Scientists have moved a step closer to being able to replace degenerated spinal discs with new ones grown in a laboratory from a patient’s own stem cells.

Spinal discs are soft tissues that cushion the vertebrae and enable our backs to conform and perform the tasks of everyday movement. Over time, the discs can wear out and cause the bones of the spine to rub together and pinch nerves. This disc degeneration is one of the leading causes of back pain.

University of Pennsylvania researchers reported in the journal Science Translational Medicine that they have successfully grown and implanted replacement discs made from the stem cells of goats. The cells were grown in a laboratory in a disc shaped form and then implanted into the necks of goats.

After 8 weeks, MRI’s showed that the replacement discs functioned just as well or better than the goats’ original cervical discs. The implanted discs were left in for 20 weeks and became part of the animals’ own tissue.

Researchers told Medical News Today that this was a major step forward from previous experiments in which they implanted discs into rat tails. Goat discs are more comparable to humans in size, structure and function.

"I think it's really exciting that we have come this far, from the rat tail all the way up to human-sized implants," said co-senior author Harvey Smith, MD, a professor of Orthopaedic Surgery at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.  

"Using a true tissue-engineered motion-preserving replacement device is not something we have yet done in orthopaedics. I think it would be a paradigm shift for how we really treat these spinal diseases and how we approach motion sparing reconstruction of joints.”

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Current treatments for degenerative discs include spinal fusion or artificial implants.  Both have limited benefits and usually cannot restore full functionality. Artificial implants also break down and have be replaced.

"The current standard of care does not actually restore the disc, so our hope with this engineered device is to replace it in a biological, functional way and regain full range of motion," said co-senior author Robert Mauck, PhD, a professor for Education and Research in Orthopaedic Surgery.

"This is a major step, to grow such a large disc in the lab, to get it into the disc space, and then to have it to start integrating with the surrounding native tissue. That's very promising."

The researchers say the next step is longer and more extensive tests on goats, before working on a bioengineered human model.  If those tests are successful, they eventually hope to test the implants in human trials.

"We have every reason to be optimistic, and if it works, we can change the way we think about treating some of these disc diseases," said Smith.

Stem Cell Therapy Becoming More Affordable

By Dr. Kristin Comella, Guest Columnist

Demand for stem cell therapy in the U.S. is anticipated to be at an all-time high this year as more patients seek to use their own cells to heal from various injuries and diseases. Among them are many chronic pain patients seeking alternatives to opioid medication and surgery for treating pain caused by systemic diseases, orthopedic conditions, neurological problems and aging.

At one time many patients traveled outside the country and were paying $20,000 to $50,000 for treatment at stem cell clinics in Europe and Asia. But over the past five years, the cost of stem cell therapy has come down dramatically.

Stem cell providers have been able to simplify the process into an outpatient protocol at hundreds of clinics throughout the U.S. As a result, costs are lower -- typically from $5,000 to $12,000 -- depending on the specific condition, practitioner, location and treatments required.

As with any specialized procedure, the cost will reflect the depth of the treatment and the time spent working with the patient. Unfortunately, stem cell treatments are not usually covered by insurance.

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When compared to traditional surgery, where in most cases there is a similar price point and significant down-time, out-patient stem cell therapy is much less invasive. Patients treated with stem cells can return to their regular routines soon after the simple procedure, rather than requiring weeks of physical therapy or needing crutches and wheelchairs to get around.

Recent studies show that stem cells may be used in a variety of indications where opioids are frequently prescribed, such as back pain.  I recently co-authored a small study appearing in the Journal of Translational Medicine, in which 15 patients with degenerative disc disease were treated with stem cells derived from their own fat tissue. All 15 patients reported a statistically significant reduced pain level after stem cell therapy.

Adult stem cells may have the ability to improve and possibly even reverse the effects of many types of chronic pain caused by tissue or neurological damage. Adult stem cells are found in every part of the body, and can be harvested from a patient’s own tissue, such as adipose (fat) tissue, muscle, teeth, skin or bone marrow. Fat tissue is one of the most plentiful sources of stem cells in the body. In fact, approximately 500 times more stem cells can be obtained from fat than bone marrow.

Typically, during a simple outpatient procedure, stem cells can be isolated from fat tissue in 30 to 90 minutes, under local anesthesia using a mini-lipoaspirate technique. They can then be infused or re-injected after the mini-liposuction.

A recent study published in the Journal of Clinical Medicine Research underscores the safety of using a person’s own stem cells – known as autologous stem cells -- in treating degenerative diseases and injuries. The study was the largest safety trial to date that successfully used stem cells from fat in procedures completed on 676 patients. It is also the first trial to address cells from fat in multiple diseases and with different delivery routes.

To date, more than 10,000 patients have been successfully treated using the stem cell protocols being utilized at American Stem Cell.  There has been a significant increase in interest from patients in using stem cells for general health, anti-aging, and reducing inflammation. More and more patients are also seeking to preserve and bank their cells for “just in case” scenarios.

The positive results we’ve been getting are very encouraging and offer hope for many patients battling chronic pain. 

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Kristin Comella, PhD, is Chief Science Officer for American Stem Cell Centers of Excellence. She specializes in regenerative medicine with a focus on adipose derived stem cells.

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.

An Open Letter to My Senator: CDC Has Killed Me

(Editor’s Note: Charles Malinowski is a 59-year old Paso Robles, California man who lives with Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSD), degenerative disc disease, ankylosing spondylitis, spinal stenosis and other chronic pain conditions.  He recently wrote this open letter to U.S. Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA). We thought his letter worth sharing with PNN readers.)

Dear Senator Harris,

The CDC has killed me!

Let me repeat that: The CDC has killed me!

I have a severe neurological condition that causes me unspeakable and crippling pain. Pain medication is literally the only thing keeping me alive. But with the issuance of the CDC’s short sighted, so-called voluntary opioid prescribing guidelines -- which are being rammed down the throats of medical providers -- my pain management doctor has cut me off of opiates.

For the last 10 years, I have been subjected to nearly every type of physical therapy, medical treatment and medication applicable to my affliction. The one and only thing that has ever had any demonstrable benefit in even temporarily suppressing my pain to a tolerable level has, unfortunately, been opiates.

In early October, I was told that I would have to stop taking either the oral opiates or the intrathecal opiates, as it was now illegal for a person to receive two different types of opiates via two different delivery methods concurrently. This was a major problem, as even with both oral and intrathecal opiates, my pain was severely under-managed to the point where I was almost completely bedridden. I left the house only to go to doctor's appointments.

When I was told that my pain management regimen - specifically the opiates - was going to be cut in half, even though my pain was already grossly under-managed, I spoke out about this.

CHARLES MALINOWSKI

CHARLES MALINOWSKI

As a result, not only was I cut off from the oral opiates, I got kicked out of the pain management practice where I have been a patient for more than seven years. The doctor said he didn't want to risk his license - but was perfectly willing to risk my life - over the CDC opioid guidelines.  These guidelines are supposed to be voluntary and are not supposed to take desperately needed pain medication away from legitimate chronic pain sufferers such as myself.

I expect that within 60 days, I will be dead from either heart failure or a stroke due to my body's inability to cope with the stress of the unrelenting pain. My neuropsychologist, who has been treating me for nearly 10 years, has consistently rated my level of pain as moderate to extreme, even while being medicated with both oral and intrathecal opiates, which I am now denied.

I'm not dead yet, but within 60 days I expect that the CDC will have effectively killed me. I honestly don't see myself being able to tolerate the pain any longer than that.

Congress, in going along with this blindly, will be explicitly complicit in this negligent homicide - or homicide by depraved indifference, take your pick - of one Charles James Malinowski, that being myself.

I would like to thank you, Senator, and all the rest of your colleagues for murdering me.

To help ease your conscience, it is not just me that Congress is complicit in murdering, but thousands, possibly tens of thousands of people in like positions.

Sincerely,

Charles Malinowski

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

I Miss the Person I Used to Be

By Deanna Singleton, Guest Columnist

I'm not the same person I was 8 years ago. It's not because I went through a tragic life experience or that I finally figured out the point of life.

It was that one day, all of a sudden, I opened my eyes in the morning and both my legs were in pain. And over the course of the last 8 years it keeps getting worse. I have advanced spinal stenosis, three bulging discs and degenerative disc disease.

It’s now to the point that at the age of 36, it takes everything I have to get in the shower or to just make a dinner for my kids and hubby. And if I actually do take a shower or do dishes, I'm usually in tears from the pain. I can't move the rest of the day from that small activity. Some days, just the water hitting or running over my skin is enough to make the average person want to die.

I want my life back. I didn't ask for this daily pain.

The first thing I think about when I open my eyes in the morning is where are my medications. I have to take pain medication just to walk through my house or to play with my children.

DEANNA SINGLETON

DEANNA SINGLETON

I used to have a very clean home. Now, not so much. Now it’s normal to walk into my home and see a mountain of clothes filling one whole couch. I loved to clean my house and make it a beautiful home for my family. I used to be out in my garden or flower beds, because that's my happy place. But I can no longer go there.

I used to be able to take my three girls on a walk to the park. Or walk the mall. Now I'm just lucky to be able to walk the grocery store, using the cart as a walker just long enough to get stuff for dinner.

Last but not least, I used to be a great wife. Smiling, happy and at the door to greet my husband after working a long hard day, with makeup and hair done. To make sure he remembers why he comes home every day. 

It's hard to feel pretty when you hurt so bad. Now I'm probably on the couch or in bed with my pajamas still on. With no makeup and hair in a messy bun. No more greetings at the door. And a smile no where to be found.

I used to be a great partner who was loving and affectionate. Who made sure my husband was happy in every way. Now it hurts so bad that we both just feel terrible afterwards.  Me because of the pain level, and him because he feels bad and that it's his fault now.

I used to work at two jobs, until I lost my pain meds due to my doctor not being comfortable any longer prescribing opioids because of the CDC guidelines and our local DEA. I was told by the doctor that he could no longer prescribe my medication.  And just like that, I went from 190 mg of oxycodone a day down to zero. No tapering.  My body then went into massive withdrawal.  I thought I was going to die. And since then I can no longer work.

In the state of Oregon we find no relief or sympathetic doctors who are willing to prescribe these life saving opiates that have been proven to give me my life back. And it's all because doctors are too scared of the CDC and the DEA to treat us patients, who rely on these meds to have any function or quality of life.

I have never wanted someone to cut into my body so bad. But no surgeon will do my surgery till I turn 40. My primary care provider will barely give me tramadol.  I've been to every specialist possible. And gone through countless medications, physical therapies and injections.

I'm just asking our medical doctors to do the job they once probably loved and not be so afraid to treat their patients as they know best. And let me be the mom and wife I used to be, and know I can be once again.

I just want my life back. For my kids, my marriage and for a somewhat active life.  I will start my life at 40.  I will probably be the happiest woman ever to return 40.

Deanna Singleton lives in Oregon with her family.  She is a proud supporter of #PatientsNotAddicts on Facebook and on Twitter.

Pain News Network invites other readers to share their stories with us.  Send them 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 represent the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Study Tests Stem Cells for Degenerative Disc Disease

By Pat Anson, Editor

An Australian biotech company is testing a new stem cell treatment for degenerative disc disease.

Mesoblast is enrolling patients in a Phase 3 study to see if a single injection of mesenchymal precursor cells (MPCs) taken from the bone marrow of healthy donors can relieve back pain and improve the mobility of patients with disc disease, which occurs when the cushions between vertebrae wear down because of aging, genetics or injuries.

Millions of MPCs are injected directly into the damaged disc in an outpatient procedure. Previous studies have found that MPCs have anti-inflammatory effects, and help strengthen and improve the stability of damaged discs. The treatment is being developed for patients who have exhausted other options for their back pain.

“Patients with this level of degeneration often try multiple treatments for relief, including pain medication, massage, physical therapy, chiropractic adjustments and acupuncture,” says lead investigator Kee Kim, MD, professor of neurological surgery and co-director of the University of California Davis Spine Center.

“For some of them, nothing seems to help, and we end up operating to remove the degenerated disc and fuse the spine to eliminate motion that may cause increased pain. We want to know if a single dose of this investigational therapy can offer relief without the need for surgery.”

UC Davis is one of 28 sites in the United States and Australia involved in the study. Participants with degenerative disc disease in the lower back will receive injections of either MPCs, MPCs with a carrier material (hyaluronic acid) or a placebo. Although the MPCs are collected from donors, tissue matching is not necessary.

Following treatment, participants will be evaluated by researchers six times over the course of a year. They also will be given the option to participate in an extension of the study to track their progress for three years after the initial injection.

Previous studies have found that MPCs have anti-inflammatory effects, and help strengthen and improve the stability of damaged discs. Researchers caution, however, that the treatment may not be effective for everyone.

“Many patients with back pain will not benefit from this stem cell therapy and may still require surgery,” Kim said. “For some patients, it could offer improvement. For these patients, it is worth exploring this alternative.”

You can find out more about the study by clicking here.