Record Decline in Opioid Prescriptions

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hydrocodone Prescriptions Drop

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

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

U.S. HYDROCODONE PRESCRIPTIONS (MILLIONS)

Source: IQVIA

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Chronic Pain Led Me to Illegal Drugs

(Editor's note: This column was written by someone I've known for several years and consider a friend. The author is intelligent, college educated and works full time. They also have a progressive and incurable chronic pain condition. Like a growing number of pain patients who are undertreated or have lost access to pain care, my friend has turned to illegal drugs for pain relief. For obvious reasons, we are not disclosing the author's name.) 

For me, it started with borrowing a couple hydrocodone pills from my uncle, who’d just had surgery and didn’t finish his prescription.  

Technically illegal? Yes. Illegal illegal? Not really. That’s what I told myself.

I run out of pain pills early every month — because they are prescribed to take one every six hours and only last about three. So I was happy to have a few more to get through those last few days before my refill.  

I always need more though, because the pain is always there. So I started to swap pills with my cousin, who also has chronic pain.  “Here, take 10 of mine today,” I’d offer.  

Then a few days later, I’d go back with, “Okay, now I need to borrow some pills from you. Maybe just five to get me through until my next refill?”  

I know she would never consider those drug deals. She would never consider herself a dealer. She goes to church for goodness sake. 

Eventually, I started to pay a little cash for 5mg pills from a friend of a friend, because it seems only fair to give him something in return.

I guess that’s about as “drug deal” as drug deals get. Here is money for you in exchange for drugs for me. There’s no way to really argue that.   

But it still didn’t feel like a drug deal. He’s doing me a favor, so I’m doing him a favor. We’re working professionals. We’re not meeting in a dark alley. Nobody has a gun on them. We’re just helping each other.

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Then I started buying marijuana to see if it would help with the pain.  I felt like marijuana was easier to get than my monthly pain pill prescription. And as long as I had the money, I could get as much as I wanted.  

I bought it from an old high school friend, who has a quiet house in the country and always invites me over for dinner. It felt more like buying homemade jewelry than buying homemade drugs. And she’d send me home with marijuana edibles that didn’t seem all that different than any other muffins my friends would bake for me.  

Recreational marijuana isn’t legal where I live, but it is in a lot of other places, so it’s still easy to justify this one to myself. My state is just a little behind. We’ll catch up. And soon buying an eighth won’t be much different than buying a pack of cigarettes.  

The marijuana doesn’t help me much other than putting me to sleep, so I hardly ever buy it. But if it did work — if it helped anywhere close to the way hydrocodone does — I would become a regular customer.  

Since I didn’t like it or use that much, I ended up selling some leftover marijuana to a friend’s uncle. That’s about when I officially became a dealer myself, I suppose.  

And now, I’m regularly buying extra hydrocodone from the local drug dealer. I meet up with him in the alley behind his apartment. He does not make drug dealing look glamorous. He never has enough money for his phone bill, he always needs a ride, and I’m pretty sure he uses the money I give him to buy heroin.  

I tell myself that most people would do what I was doing if they were enduring the kind of daily, debilitating chronic pain that I have. It’s either this or suicide.  

I try to get my doctor to increase my prescription and hold my breath every time they drug test me. So far, I’ve always passed. And so far, my prescription has yet to last me until the end of the month.  

All these illegal drugs get expensive. $10 for one 10mg hydrocodone. You can whip through $300 a week easily. Hydrocodone is more expensive than heroin and even harder to get.  

Sometimes I wonder if I should just take the leap and buy $20 worth of heroin, which would be more potent than $400 worth of hydrocodone pills. I know where I can get it now, thanks to my new connections to the local dealer.  

But so far, I’ve resisted. Not worth the possible side effects. Not worth the hassle. And not worth the potential legal issues. If I buy hydrocodone, I can slip them into one of my pill bottles with a legitimate label and the cops would have a hard time proving they weren’t mine. Heroin is a little more difficult to hide. 

I know some heroin users and they aren’t like the ones in the movies. They aren’t shooting up in dark alleys. They’re doing it in the morning to combat chronic pain. They’re doing it so they can go to work. They’re doing it because their legitimate doctor cut them off. They’re doing it so they can live their lives.  

And that’s what I'm doing, too. I bought 10 hydrocodone this morning, because I needed something to get me through the work day. Without opioid pain medication, I wouldn’t even be able to check my emails.  

I don’t know what the solution is, but I do know that when you’re in pain, you’ll do anything to make it stop. And as long as the only way to make it stop comes down to buying illegal drugs or killing myself, I’ll keep choosing illegal drugs — and pray that it doesn’t lead to me accidentally killing myself.  

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.

Everything I Learned About Using Kratom for Pain

By Crystal Lindell, PNN Columnist

Here’s the thing about kratom. It works. It seriously works. If you are having a horrific pain flare and you put some under your tongue, your pain will be gone in less than three minutes. True story.

It also made me gain 27 pounds because it acts like an antidepressant in a lot of ways, and my body always gains weight when I’m on drugs like that.

And it’s pretty expensive — about $20 for 30 grams if you don’t get it in bulk, which is about six servings. For me each dose only lasts between two to five hours depending on how bad my pain is. You can get it in bulk, which I recommend, and then it’s $150 for 1 Kilo — so much cheaper per serving.

But even if you get it cheap, it’s really disgusting. I take it by shoving a spoonful under my tongue, saying a prayer, holding back the urge to vomit, and chugging Gatorade to get it down. It’s not the only way to take it, but it’s the only way that hits you in less than three minutes.

I’ve heard others put it in tea or smoothies, and of course there are capsules, but those take longer to kick in and don’t seem to work as well.

There’s also a lot of brands and strains and it can be hard to find the ones that works best for you.

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Trainwreck Kratom by Earth Kratom is by far the best version I have found, and it literally relieves my pain as much as hydrocodone would on most days. It’s a mix of 11 different kratom strains and they seem to work better together.

But even with all the drawbacks, kratom has some serious advantages.

First and foremost, I have access to it. There’s no need for a prescription or a trip to the doctor — just a quick stop by the local smoke shop and I’m all stocked up. And it’s completely legal in most states, so there’s no need to worry about some of the issues that come with marijuana usage.

In addition to helping with pain, it also helps with depression and anxiety, which is great seeing as how most people in chronic pain have one or both.

It’s also the perfect way to get through a physical opioid withdrawal, as it will eliminate your symptoms in most cases. Yes, then you’ll have to go off kratom after that, but it’s much easier than the withdrawal that hydrocodone tends to bring with it.

One drawback is that most doctors don’t know much about it, so it can be hard to explain to them that you’re using it and they likely won’t be able to tell you how it will interact with other medications. There’s also been some bad press around it, including reports of deaths, so doctors may be wary about you using it at all. The FDA considers kratom to be an opioid and says it should not be used to treat any medical condition.

But if you’re dealing with serious chronic pain, and you’re sick of jumping through hoops to get an opioid prescription or your medication just isn’t cutting it, I would highly recommend you give kratom a try.

Just don’t try to take it with a carbonated beverage. The bubbles will lift it into your sinuses, and it feels like you’re being waterboarded with dirt. But other than that — it’s awesome!

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Crystal Lindell is a journalist who lives in Illinois. She eats too much Taco Bell, drinks too much espresso, and spends too much time looking for the perfect pink lipstick. Crystal has hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. 

Crystal writes about it on her blog, “The Only Certainty is Bad Grammar.”

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.

Rescheduling Hydrocodone May Have Increased Abuse

By Pat Anson, Editor

Four years ago that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration ordered the rescheduling of hydrocodone from a Schedule III controlled substance to the more restrictive category of Schedule II.  The move was intended to reduce the diversion and abuse of hydrocodone, which at one time was the most widely prescribed drug in the United States.

It turns out the rescheduling may have had the unintended effect of increasing the diversion and abuse of opioid medication by elderly Americans.

According to a new study by researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB), hydrocodone prescriptions for Medicare beneficiaries declined after the rescheduling, but opioid-related hospitalization of elderly patients increased for those who did not have a prescription for opioids.

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"The 2014 federal hydrocodone rescheduling policy was associated with decreased opiate use among the elderly," said lead author Yong-Fang Kuo, PhD, a professor of Preventive Medicine and Community Health at UTMB.

"However, we also observed a 24 percent increase in opioid-related hospitalizations in Medicare patients without documented opioid prescriptions, which may represent an increase in illegal use."

Kuo and her colleagues say Medicare beneficiaries are among the largest consumers of prescription opioids. They speculated that opioid abuse by the elderly may be a coping mechanism to deal with poor health and depression, and that opioid diversion may be a sign of drug dealing.

“An economic purpose may relate to monetary gains from the diversion and sale to others,” Kuo wrote. “It is important for prescribers to understand that their elderly Medicare beneficiaries might be obtaining opioids from sources that are not documented in their medical records. There is a need for additional research on why, where, and how these Medicare enrollees are obtaining opioids.”

The UTMB research team analyzed a large sample of Medicare Part D enrollment and claims data from 2012 through 2015. Their study was published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

The reclassification of hydrocodone to a Schedule II controlled substance limited patients to an initial 90-day supply and required them to see a doctor for a new prescription each time they need a 30-day refill. Prescriptions for Schedule II drugs also cannot be phoned or faxed in by physicians.

In 2012, over 135 million prescriptions were written in the U.S. for hydrocodone products such as Vicodin, Lortab and Norco.  That fell to 90 million prescriptions by 2016.

Overall Opioid Prescribing Down

Hydrocodone isn't the only opioid medication to see steep declines in prescribing. The volume of opioid prescriptions filled last year dropped by 12 percent, the largest decline in 25 years according to a new report by the IQVIA Institute.  Opioid prescriptions have been falling since 2011, while dispensing of addiction treatment drugs like buprenorphine (Suboxone) and methadone have risen sharply.

“The U.S. opioid epidemic is one of the most challenging public health crises we face as a nation," said Murray Aitken, IQVIA senior vice president and executive director of the IQVIA Institute for Human Data Science.

“Our research and analytics revealed that 2017 saw new therapy starts for prescription opioids in pain management decline nearly 8 percent, with a near doubling of medication-assisted therapies (MATs) for opioid use dependence to 82,000 prescriptions per month. This suggests that healthcare professionals are prescribing opioids less often for pain treatment, but they are actively prescribing MATs to address opioid addiction."

All 50 states and Washington DC had declines in opioid prescribing of 5 percent or more in 2017, with some of the states hardest hit by the opioid crisis -- like West Virginia and Pennsylvania --  showing declines of over 10 percent. Nevertheless, the number of Americans overdosing continues to rise due to increased use of black market drugs like illicit fentanyl, heroin and cocaine, which now account for about two-thirds of all drug deaths.

Painkiller Study Conducted at Poorly Rated Hospital

By Pat Anson, Editor

Over-the-counter pain relievers are just as effective as opioid medication in treating short-term acute pain in a hospital emergency room, according to a widely touted study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

The study was relatively small – only 416 patients participated – and it was conducted at a New York City hospital with a poor history of pain care. Still, it's getting a lot of media coverage. “Milder pill may be best for pain” is the front page headline in the Los Angeles Times. “Drugstore pain pills as effective as opioids” said STAT News. “Opioids Not the Only Answer for Pain Relief” reported HealthDay.  

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Researchers said patients with moderate to severe acute pain in their arms or legs got just as much pain relief after being given a combination of acetaminophen and ibuprofen than those who took hydrocodone, oxycodone or codeine. The study only measured pain relief for two hours.

Patients with sickle cell disease, fibromyalgia, neuropathy or any type of pain that lasted more than seven days were excluded from the study because researchers only wanted to focus on short term pain.

"Although this study focused on treatment while in the emergency department, if we can successfully treat acute extremity pain with a non-opioid combination painkiller in there, then we might be able to send these patients home without an opioid prescription," said lead author Andrew Chang, MD, a professor of emergency medicine at Albany Medical Center.

"We know that some patients who are given an opioid prescription will become addicted, so if we can decrease the number of people being sent home with an opioid prescription, then we can prevent people from becoming addicted in the first place."

What Chang, JAMA and the news reports all fail to mention is that the study was conducted at one of the worst hospitals in the nation. In an annual survey of Medicare patients, Montefiore Medical Center in New York City was given only one star (out of five possible), placing it in the bottom 2.44% of hospitals nationwide.

Montefiore was rated poorly on a variety of quality measures, including pain care. Only 64 percent of the patients treated there said their pain was “always” well controlled, compared to the national average of 71 percent.

‘Worst Hospital in the Entire City’

Many of the online reviews of Montefiore’s emergency room are scathing.

“Please do not come to the ER unless you want to die or are used to unsympathetic health professionals,” warned Amanda G. on Yelp.  “I have severe abdominal pain and I'm walking home in tears right now. I came in told the nurse there my symptoms and she couldn't have made it clearer that she couldn't care less.”

“This has to be the worst hospital in the entire city. The nurses in the ER are rude and don't care about your well being. The ER is filthy. People stacked on top of each other,” wrote Robert in a Google review.

MONTEFIORE MEDICAL CENTER PHOTO

MONTEFIORE MEDICAL CENTER PHOTO

“The emergency room sucks. The doctors sit around on the computers gossiping. I even overheard a few doctors saying ‘why aren’t we picking up patients?’ Meanwhile there’s a room full of patients not being taken care of. There’s a patient screaming for help and no one hears him. All the staff members just walk by him,” wrote Zoe D. on Yelp.

“Somebody told me this place was the equivalent of going to a hospital in Manhattan. They lied! I went to the emergency room today for chest pains, I ended up sitting there for four hours never to be seen by a doctor. I ended up walking out and leaving still with my chest pains,” said Phonz R. on Yelp.

“Their ER department is horrible. I went to the ER with my mom via ambulance, we got there (a little) before 1pm. Fast forward 1:58 in the morning she still wasn't put in a room,” wrote J.L. Eaddy on Google. “This was the absolute worst ER I've ever encountered. And I NEVER want to come back again. I wish I had the option to give it negative stars.”

Unfortunately, complaints such as these are not unusual in busy, urban teaching hospitals like Montefiore.  And not all the reviews are poor. U.S. News and World Report gave high rankings to Montefiore in a number of areas, although it didn’t specifically rank its emergency department. Montefiore was recently given a lukewarm “C” rating by the Leapfrog group, a non-profit that grades hospitals on quality and safety.  

Many pain patients have poor experiences in hospitals. In a survey of nearly 1,300 patients by PNN and the International Pain Foundation, over half rated the quality of their pain care in hospitals as either poor or very poor. About two-thirds of the patients said non-opioid pain medications were ineffective.

How Fish Got Hooked on Hydrocodone

By Pat Anson, Editor

We hear it all the time from PNN readers. They don’t trust academic research about opioids and addiction, and feel much of it is biased or just plain fishy.

You can certainly say the latter about a new study by researchers at the University of Utah.

They devised a system that allows zebrafish, a small tropical fish popular in home aquariums, to self-administer doses of the painkiller hydrocodone. In less than a week, researchers say the fish were hooked on hydrocodone and showed signs of drug-seeking behavior and withdrawal.

"We didn't know if zebrafish would be a relevant model for opioid addiction, much less self-administer the drug," said Randall Peterson, PhD, a professor of Pharmacology and Toxicology, and senior author of the study published in the journal Behavioral Brain Research.

"What is exciting about this work is that we see many of the hallmarks of addiction in zebrafish. This could be a useful and powerful model."

How is this useful and how does it relate to people?

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Zebrafish have more in common with people than you might think. They have 70 percent of the genes that humans have, including similar biological pathways that can lead to addiction. Like people, zebrafish have a μ-opioid receptor and two neurotransmitters, dopamine and glutamate, that trigger the natural reward system in the brain.

"Drugs of abuse target the pathways of the pleasure centers very effectively," said first author Gabriel Bossé, PhD. "These pathways are conserved in zebrafish, and the fish can experience some of the same signs of addiction and withdrawal as people."

Bossé and Peterson tested their system in a tank with a food dispenser equipped with a motion detector that the fish could trigger by swimming nearby. It didn’t take long for the zebrafish to learn how to get food.

Then the researchers removed the food dispenser and replaced it with one that injected small doses of hydrocodone into the water when a fish swam nearby. A continuous flow of water flushed the tank, which forced the fish to trigger the dispenser to receive another dose of hydrocodone.

Over the course of five days, the fish learned how to self-administer the drug. You can watch a demonstration below:

"The fish needed to perform an action to get the drug rather than receiving it passively," said Bossé. "Drug-seeking has been modeled before in rodents and primates, but having a model to study this in zebrafish could move the [study of addiction] forward."

The drug-seeking behavior increased when the zebrafish were forced to receive the opioid in progressively shallower water, a stressful environment that unconditioned fish would normally avoid.

"This was important, because we forced the fish to do more work to receive the drug, and they were more than willing to do more work," said Peterson.

The researchers took their experiment a step further by exposing the conditioned fish to naloxone, a drug used to treat overdoses that blocks opioid receptors. Sure enough, naloxone appeared to reduce the fish’s drug-seeking behavior.

The researchers believe their zebrafish model can lead to new drug therapies, because it can be used to rapidly test thousands of different chemical compounds. They also believe the genetic make-up of zebrafish can be altered to explore the specific biological pathways associated with addiction.

Zebrafish do have other qualities humans can learn from. Researchers at Duke University are studying proteins that enable a zebrafish to completely heal its spine -- even after it was severed. They hope this knowledge will someday lead to new therapies to repair damaged spinal cords in humans.

Hydrocodone Prescriptions Continue Falling

By Pat Anson, Editor

For the fifth year in a row, fewer prescriptions for the opioid painkiller hydrocodone were dispensed in the U.S. in 2016, according to a new report by the QuintilesIMS Institute, which tracks prescription drug use and spending.

The report adds further evidence that the nation’s overdose epidemic is being fueled by illegal opioids such as heroin and illicit fentanyl, not prescription painkillers.

About 7 million fewer prescriptions were filled last year for hydrocodone, which is usually combined with acetaminophen in Vicodin, Lortab, Lorcet, Norco, and other hydrocodone combination products.

As recently as 2012, hydrocodone was the #1 most widely dispensed medication in the nation, with 136 million prescriptions filled. Since then, hydrocodone prescriptions have fallen by over a third, to 90 million prescriptions.

Hydrocodone now ranks fourth, behind the thyroid drug levothyroxine (Synthroid), the blood pressure medication lisinopril (Zestril), and the statin atorvastatin (Lipitor).

Hydrocodone was reclassified by the DEA as a Schedule II controlled substance in 2014, making it harder to obtain. Opioid guidelines released last year by the CDC also probably had an impact, although hydrocodone prescriptions were falling long before the CDC and DEA acted.

HYDROCODONE PRESCRIPTIONS IN U.S. (MILLIONS)

Source: QuintilesIMS Institute

Prescriptions for hydrocodone and other opioids are likely to fall even further in 2017, because the DEA plans to reduce the supply of almost every Schedule II opioid pain medication by 25 percent or more "to prevent diversion." The 2017 quota for hydrocodone is being reduced by a third, to 58.4 million prescriptions, which the DEA considers an adequate supply.

Overall, QuintilesIMS reported 13 million fewer prescriptions for pain medicines in 2016, “as restrictions on prescribing and dispensing become increasingly common and impactful.” The company includes both narcotic and non-narcotic treatments in its pain medicine category.

Over 7 million more prescriptions were written last year for gabapentin (Neurontin), a medication originally developed to treat seizures that is now widely prescribed for neuropathy and other chronic pain conditions.  About 64 million prescriptions were written for gabapentin in 2016, a 49% increase since 2011.

More prescriptions are also being written for ibuprofen, a widely used pain reliever available both by prescription and in over-the-counter drugs. About 44 million prescriptions were filled for ibuprofen in 2016, a 19% increase since 2012.

The shift in prescribing away from opioids is hardly a surprise to pain sufferers. According to a recent survey of over 3,100 patients by PNN and the International Pain Foundation, over 70% said they were no longer prescribed opioids or were getting a lower dose since the CDC guidelines were released. About half of the doctors and pharmacists we surveyed also said they were writing or filling fewer opioid prescriptions, or had stopped them altogether.  

“My doctor cut me off hydrocodone cold turkey last fall leading to an overnight in the hospital emergency room,” a patient with chronic back pain and anxiety told PNN. “For years I have been stable on a mix of hydrocodone and Valium. Last October my doctor said he would only fill one prescription and asked me to make a choice so I stayed with the Valium.”

“With the VA allowing me only 2 hydrocodone per day now, I get very little exercise and stay in bed a lot,” a 70-year old veteran wrote. “My quality of life has gone down considerably. Before the changes, I stayed quite active taking 4 hydrocodone a day.”

“I had an interventional pain management doctor scream at me that the guidelines were mandatory and he refused to write for any type of opioids even though I've been on the same level of hydrocodone for several years,” another patient said.

“I took hydrocodone pain medicine for 25 years as the doctor proscribed. Never called in for more, now I'm having to go a pain doctor and get steroid shots every 3 months,” wrote a patient with lives with chronic back pain.

Overall spending on prescription drugs in the U.S. reached $323 billion in 2016, a 4.8% increase that is less than half the rate of the previous two years. The QuintilesIMS report blames the slowdown in growth on increased competition among drug makers and efforts to limit price increases.

“New medicines introduced in the past two years continue to drive at least half of the total growth as clusters of innovative treatments for cancer, autoimmune diseases, HIV, multiple sclerosis, and diabetes become accessible to patients,” said Murray Aitken, Senior Vice President and Executive Director, QuintilesIMS Institute.

Signing a Pain Contract in the Age of Opioid Phobia

By Crystal Lindell, Columnist

I know, I know. Opioids seem to be all that pain patients talk about these days. Blah, blah, blah. We get it, you need drugs. Let’s move on already.

But I don’t have that luxury. Opioids are, for better and for (mostly) worse, a huge part of my life. And I recently decided that I was:

A. Going to need to continue taking at least a small dose of hydrocodone long-term

B. That I really needed a slighter larger, “small dose” to be able to function.

I have what’s called intercostal neuralgia on my right side and the best way I can think to describe it is that I always feel like I have three broken ribs. The pain is no joke. And although it seems to be more manageable these days, it lingers and it hurts like hell, and opioids are the only thing I have found that even kind of helps.

Without hydrocodone I am in too much pain to shower regularly, check email, do my makeup or even sit a restaurant and eat.  With hydrocodone I can pretty much do all those things, like a typical health person who’s just a bit high. 

And yes, I know they are addictive, I know how hard they are to get off of, and I know that withdrawal is hell. I’ve been through it. I took myself down to 5 mg a day from 60 mg day when my pain became more manageable. It wasn’t easy. It took about a year for my brain to deal with that, and the withdrawal issues sucked.

So, when I say I need to be on hydrocodone, I say it with all the wisdom and caution that comes from the personal experience of dealing with opioids — and their side effects. 

And honestly, I’m among the lucky ones. When I called my doctor to ask if I could up to 10 mg a day, he agreed and knew I wouldn’t be asking if I hadn’t given lots of thought to the pros and cons of that choice. 

But that doesn’t mean dealing with opioids doesn’t also suck. 

First, I had to drive two hours each way to see him, because that’s how far away the closest university hospital is to my house and my case is too complex for the local small town doctors. And, as a reminder, I live my daily life feeling like I have three broken ribs. Driving two hours each way sucks. 

Then, when I got there, I had to take a drug test. Some politician somewhere decided people on opioids shouldn’t be using pot. Okay. But peeing in a cup sucks when you’re a woman. It gets all over your hands. You miss the cup and don’t collect enough. It’s just messy. 

But fine. Whatever. 

I peed in a cup. Good news. I’m clean. Well, I mean, aside from the hydrocodone, I’m clean. 

Signing a Pain Contract

Then, I had to sign what is formally called the “Controlled Substances Medication Agreement” — basically an opioid pain contract. At first blush it doesn’t seem like a big deal. As long as I’m a good person, there shouldn’t be any issues, right?

But the thing is literally 21 bullet points long. And it feels like I signed away all of my rights. 

The contract includes things like bullet point number 8, which requires that I get my prescription filled at the same pharmacy every month.

This is annoying because I use my local small town pharmacy, which is closed on Sundays, holidays and every night at 7 p.m. And if I’m due for a refill on a Sunday or out of town for work when my prescription expires, I can’t get it filled early, as bullet point number 14 clearly explains. 

Bullet point 14 also says I have to keep all my drugs in a locked cabinet or safe, and if they’re ever stolen I can’t get an early refill. Guys, that’s just not practical. I take these meds as needed, and sometimes that means I’m at the grocery store or visiting a friend or eating at Taco Bell, and then suddenly they are needed. And at those times, they are in my purse, which doesn’t have a lock on it. 

Bullet point number 11 says I can’t go to the emergency room for opioids, which sucks because sometimes my pain spikes and the only thing that gets it under control is a shot of dilaudid, which I usually get at the ER. I guess now when my pain spikes, I’m supposed to drive two hours to my doctor and hope he’s available to deal with it. 

Oh, and if I’m ever too sick to make that drive, nobody is allowed to pick up my hydrocodone prescription unless I have pre-authorized them, as per bullet point number 13. Of course, it has to be a written prescription — doctors cannot legally call in or fax hydrocodone  prescriptions anymore. 

I also agreed to get random drug tests, allow pill counts. and basically just give up all of my dignity. 

Fine. Okay. I need these medications. So I signed on the dotted line. And I guess I just have to hope I never get robbed, have a flare up or need a refill on a Sunday. 

The thing about opioids is that everyone assumes that if they ever need these drugs they will be able to get them. That anyone who’s truly deserving doesn’t have anything to worry about. But I have to tell you something: I’m a good person. I’m in real pain. I need these drugs. And I’m barely able to get them.

I understand how powerful these drugs are. Going off morphine was literally hell for me. But you know what else is hell? Living every day of your life feeling like you have three broken ribs. 

Crystal Lindell is a journalist who lives in Illinois. She loves Taco Bell, watching "Burn Notice" episodes on Netflix and Snicker's Bites. She has had intercostal neuralgia since February 2013.

Crystal writes about it on her blog, “The Only Certainty is Bad Grammar.”

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.

Four Years of Chronic Pain

By Crystal Lindell, Columnist

This month marks four years since I first woke up with random pain in my right ribs.

Sometimes it feels shorter than that. Sometimes, it feels so much longer.

I didn’t want to write this column. I didn’t want to acknowledge this anniversary.

I’ve been doing so much better lately. The pain, which is likely intercostal neuralgia, is way more under control than it used to be, thanks in large part, I believe, to getting my Vitamin D levels into the normal range.

But it lingers, it’s always there, like a black shadow and a heavy cinder block, pulling me back.

And after taking myself from 60 mg of opioids a day down to 5 mg, I decided this month to go back up a bit because the pain has been too much to bear. After talking with my doctor, we decided to go with 10 mg a day.

It feels like defeat.

I don’t know why the pain seems to be worse these days. It could be stress, it could be the weather, or it could just be because I wear Mac red lipstick almost daily now — it all really does feel that arbitrary.

And even though I try to manage all the possible triggers, sometimes it just flares up and leaves me unable to get out of bed. On those days, even the hydrocodone doesn’t touch it.

It’s frustrating. And I thought maybe if I didn’t write this column — if I just ignored the four-year mark — I could pretend I was actually all better.

I’m not though. Obviously, I’m not.

The pain still impacts so much of my daily life. I still factor in time to rest after a shower. I still make careful calculations about how much driving I can really do in a day before the pain gets too bad. And I still take lots of sick time from work.

I spend more time than I should counting hydrocodone pills and figuring out which bras hurt the least and avoiding hugs.

I do feel like I’m better than I was though. I’m completely off morphine, which feels like a victory. And most of the time, the pain is completely manageable with a very small dose of hydrocodone. Also, I’m lucky in that I can fake being well long enough that most of the time it doesn’t really impact how others see me. Most people have no idea I struggle with health issues unless I outright tell them.

It’s been a long four years. And I wouldn’t wish chronic pain on anyone. All of the good things — all of the ways I’ve learned to be more compassionate, all of the writing it has inspired, all of the bonds it helped me cement with family and friends who helped me out — I would give it all back if I could live without pain.

Alas, that is not my fate. This is my fate. A constant battle between living like a healthy person and feeling like a sick person. Medical bills. Driving two hours each way to see specialists. Sleeping only on my left side. This is my life. 

But at least I have my Mac red lipstick. Even the rib pain can’t take that away from me.

Crystal Lindell is a journalist who lives in Illinois. She loves Taco Bell, watching "Burn Notice" episodes on Netflix and Snicker's Bites. She has had intercostal neuralgia since February 2013.

Crystal writes about it on her blog, “The Only Certainty is Bad Grammar.”

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.

E-coli Bacteria Used to Produce Morphine

By Pat Anson, Editor

While politicians and regulators in the U.S. try to decrease access to opioid pain medications, scientists are developing new techniques to mass produce them.

The latest development is at Kyoto University in Japan, where researchers have learned how to tweak E coli bacteria so that they pump out thebaine, a morphine precursor that can be modified to make opioid pain relievers.

The genetically modified Escherichia coli – a common gut microbe -- produces 300 times more thebaine than a recently developed method involving yeast.

"Morphine has a complex molecular structure; because of this, the production of morphine and similar painkillers is expensive and time-consuming. But with our E coli, we were able to yield 2.1 miligrams of thebaine in a matter of days from roughly 20 grams of sugar,” said lead author Fumihiko Sato of Kyoto University.

"Improvements in opiate production in this E. coli system represent a major step towards the development of alternative opiate production systems."

Sato’s study is published in the journal Nature Communications.

    Escherichia coli

 Escherichia coli

Morphine is extracted from opium poppy sap in a process that typically takes up to a year. Morphine can then be converted to opiates such as codeine, hydrocodone or even heroin.

Scientists at Stanford University last year engineered the yeast genome so that it produces opiate alkaloids from sugar. The genetically altered yeast cells grow so rapidly they convert sugar into hydrocodone in just three to five days. That raised fears that opioids could be produced cheaply and easily, provided that one has access to the necessary yeast strain.

With E coli, Sato says that such a production risk is unlikely.

"Four strains of genetically modified E coli are necessary to turn sugar into thebaine," explains Sato. "E coli are more difficult to manage and require expertise in handling. This should serve as a deterrent to unregulated production."

In 2011, Sato and colleagues engineered E coli to synthesize reticuline, another morphine precursor. In the new system, the team added genes from other bacteria and enzyme genes from two strains of opium poppies, Coptis japonica, and Arabidopsis.

"By adding another two genes, our E coli were able to produce hydrocodone, which would certainly boost the practicality of this technique," Sato said. "With a few more improvements to the technique and clearance of pharmaceutical regulations, manufacturing morphine-like painkillers from microbes could soon be a reality."

Opioid pain medications are widely available in the United States, where the focus is often on their potential misuse. But the World Health Organization estimates that 5.5 billion people worldwide have little or no access to opioids because of their limited supply and high cost.