An Old Disease Returns in Modern Times

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Dr. Forest Tennant may no longer be practicing medicine, but he continues his groundbreaking research into the causes and treatment of adhesive arachnoiditis (AA), a chronic, progressive and painful inflammation of spinal nerves.

Once a rare disease linked in the 19th century to infections such as syphilis and tuberculosis, arachnoiditis is re-appearing in surprising numbers and for completely different reasons. Tennant believes millions of Americans may have developed AA, which is often misdiagnosed as “failed back syndrome” – chronic back pain that fails to respond or grows worse after invasive spinal procedures.

“I think it’s now the number one cause of really severe pain in the country. I don’t think there’s any question about that,” says Tennant. “When I closed my clinic, about 70% of the people in there who had to take high dose opioids had an issue with arachnoiditis.”

Tennant and co-author Ingrid Hollis have written a new book -- “Adhesive Arachnoiditis: An Old Disease Re-Emerges in Modern Times” -- to help doctors and patients recognize the symptoms of AA and to offer hope for treating a disease long thought to be incurable.

Why is AA re-emerging?  Tennant says a “perfect storm” began to appear around the year 2000, when longer lifespans, obesity and sedentary lifestyles contributed to more cases. Lack of exercise has long been associated with chronic back pain.

Arthritis, accidents, repetitive stress injuries and even Lyme disease can also cause degenerative spinal conditions that lead to AA.

“But the real factor contributing is probably sedentary lifestyles. Look at the number of people spending 6 to 8 hours a day in front of a computer or TV screen,” says Tennant. “I’m really trying to bring attention to the fact that people need to be aware that this is something that can happen because of our lifestyles.”

As more Americans sought treatment for back pain, millions were given “interventional” procedures such as epidural steroid injections and spinal surgeries – a trend that appears to have increased as opioids fell out of favor. While most interventional procedures do not result in complications, all it takes is a single misplaced needle or scalpel to damage the spinal cord and trigger a lifetime sentence of AA.

“Everybody wants to blame the epidurals and the surgeries for these problems, but they were only doing these things when there were medical indications for them. And if they do the surgeries and the epidurals, a certain percentage of them are going to get arachnoiditis,” Tennant told PNN.

“There is a risk/benefit to these procedures. If you start going in and operating on the spine or you have half a dozen epidural injections, you start increasing your risk for developing adhesive arachnoiditis. One of the points I want to make is that it is the underlining spinal conditions that are causing the problems. The interventions and the surgeries may accelerate it, but the condition was already set.”

For many years, Tennant was one of the few doctors in the U.S. willing to treat AA patients with high doses of opioids. Intractable pain patients from around the country traveled to California to see Tennant – which led to his home and office being raided by the DEA in 2017. No charges were ever filed against Tennant, but the stress of being investigated led to his retirement from clinical practice.

Tennant now consults with other doctors and is developing new protocols for treating AA with hormones and drugs that reduce pain and inflammation while stimulating nerve growth. His book includes a self-screening test for patients and a list of AA symptoms.

Most essential in any AA diagnosis is a good MRI of the spine. Tennant has a library of over 300 MRI’s sent to him by patients and doctors in dozens of countries — a testament to how AA is re-emerging worldwide.

(Dr. Tennant and the Tennant Foundation have given financial support to Pain News Network and are currently sponsoring PNN’s Patient Resources section.)  

Why Do Doctors Keep Pushing Invasive Procedures on Me?

By Mike Emelio, Guest Columnist 

I'm not a cynical person by nature, but I'm seeing a very clear pattern with interventional pain management doctors. Why is it that every doctor I've seen who is certified in interventional pain medicine (at least 8 of them already) demonize opioid medication and insist on pushing their non-FDA approved injections, radiofrequency ablations, pain pumps and spinal cord stimulators? 

This approach is even more absurd when you consider the fact that invasive procedures tend to have low rates of efficacy and are known to create scar tissue and nerve damage, both of which can cause more pain.  

As if this weren't ridiculous enough, in spite of explaining to these doctors how epidural steroid injections not only didn't work for me, but robbed me of my life by tripling my pain and making my condition much worse (see “Disabled by the War on Opioids”), every single one of the doctors I've seen still tries to push more of those injections on me.  

My head spins every time I hear them try to sell me on more injections. Are they deaf, insane, just trying to make their wallets fatter, or all three?

On what planet does it make sense to do more of what made a thing worse

Ever since my life was ruined by those injections 5 years ago, I've been desperately trying to find a doctor who truly cares about my well-being and wants to help me. My search has been fruitless so far.  

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Sadly, it just keeps getting worse. The latest doctor I started seeing keeps pushing a pain pump on me. That is as absurd as it gets. Multiple doctors have told me that the reason those injections made my back pain worse is because they caused adhesive arachnoiditis or nerve damage – both of which can be made worse with invasive procedures.  

Why would any doctor push a pain pump on me? I could understand it for a patient with a history of drug abuse, but that is not the case with me. Not only do I have zero history of drug or alcohol abuse, but I have taken my pain meds responsibly for many years. Why should I submit to being put under anesthesia, cut open and have a device implanted in me, all which can have serious complications, when I can get the same medication in a pill that I took responsibly for many years? 

All of the surgeons say that my best option for improved quality of life is pain medication and staying as active and mobile as possible. Yet every interventional pain management doctor ignores their advice and pushes for injections, spinal cord stimulators or pain pumps. Why would they do that?  

It's simple.  According to my Medicare statements, a doctor makes about $75 per visit to write and maintain prescription medications. But with the injections, it's $1,000 and up!

Many times I've personally seen doctors perform unnecessary tests that pay them a lot of money and only for that reason. This is not just my opinion, as other doctors I've seen have confirmed this. Not all doctors are like this and I wouldn't even venture to say most, but the fact is there are plenty of them out there. 

I'm not saying any of this to bash doctors. I'm sharing this information in hopes that people take the time to get educated, be vigilant and be their own advocate when it comes to their healthcare. Doctors are only human. They're just as susceptible to flaws as anyone else. I can't impress enough on all of you to look out for yourselves and get second, third, fourth and even fifth opinions if needed.

If you think that sounds excessive, just think about what happened to me. They took away what was working for me and used a non-FDA approved procedure on me that wasn't even designed for what they were using it for. The end result was that it crippled me, robbed me of my ability to work, forced me into a life of poverty and disability, and took away my freedom, my dignity and my ability to properly care for myself. 

Simply put... It has devastated my life.

I don't post any this for sympathy. I am only trying to educate and inform people about what can happen if they put too much faith in doctors without doing some research. What happened to me is a prime example of just how essential it is that we patients be as proactive as possible, be our own advocates and protect ourselves. 

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Michael Emelio lives in Florida.

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.

Pain Clinic Sign ‘Unauthorized and Untrue’

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

A Florida-based chain of surgery centers and pain clinics says a sign that briefly appeared at one of its clinics implying that the company would no longer prescribe opioid medication is unauthorized and untrue.

The sign appeared in a window at Physician Partners of America’s Jacksonville clinic on May 14.  Someone took a picture of the sign and posted it online, where it was widely shared on Twitter and Facebook among pain patients, advocates and doctors.

“ATTENTION ALL PATIENTS,” the sign said in bold red letters. “Per our chief (medical) officer, Dr. Rivera, we will be starting to focus on interventional medicine only and we will not be managing medication. This will be fully effective within the next 30 days or less.”

For someone taking opioid medication for chronic pain, the threat of being cutoff is very real. The potential number of patients that would be impacted would also be significant. Physician Partners of America (PPOA) treats around 20,000 patients in Florida and Texas.

The problem with the sign is that it isn’t true, according to the company.

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“This sign was brought to our attention through social media. It was in no way authorized or approved by management, and its message is untrue. It resulted from an employee’s misinterpretation of our goal to reduce opioid dependence,” Maria Hickman, PPOA’s social media and content specialist, said in a statement on the company’s website.

“We recognize the opioid crisis backlash. As an organization, we sympathize with the plight of people who rely on, but who do not intentionally abuse, prescription opioid medications to manage their chronic pain. We aim to show them what we consider a better, safer way to reduce or eliminate pain.”

That “safer way” is interventional pain management, a more aggressive form of treatment that includes epidural steroid injections, nerve blocks, “minimally invasive” spinal procedures, Botox injections, spinal cord stimulators and stem cell therapy. Interventional methods are more expensive than pain medication, are not always covered by insurance, and many patients believe they are neither safer or effective.

PPOA said it would continue prescribing opioids to patients when it is appropriate, adding that they would be tapered to lower doses. “Patients are and will continue to be titrated down according to CDC guidelines; however, there is no cut-off date,” Hickman said.

That part of the company’s statement reflects a common misconception about the CDC’s controversial guideline, which is voluntary and does not mandate tapers. The 2016 guideline only recommends tapering “if benefits do not outweigh harms of continued opioid therapy” and explicitly says tapering should be voluntary, with the patient’s consent.

“Clinicians should emphatically review benefits and risks of continued high-dosage opioid therapy and should offer to work with patients to taper opioids to safer dosages. For patients who agree to taper opioids to lower dosages, clinicians should collaborate with the patient on a tapering plan,” the guideline says.

That part of the guideline has been so widely ignored that CDC Director Robert Redfield, MD, released a letter last month warning doctors not to taper patients without their consent.

“The Guideline does not endorse mandated or abrupt dose reduction or discontinuation, as these actions can result in patient harm,” Redfield said. “The Guideline includes recommendations for clinicians to work with patients to taper or reduce dosage only when patient harm outweighs patient benefit of opioid therapy.”

The marketing of Physician Partners of America clearly states a preference for interventional therapy over opioid medication, so patients who go to a PPOA clinic shouldn’t be surprised if tapering or discontinuation is recommended.

“At its foundation, PPOA uses interventional pain management modalities to treat pain at its source instead of masking it with medication,” the company says. “We have championed remedies to the opioid crisis in public forums, in the media, in televised town halls and at medical conventions. PPOA physicians strictly follow the prescribing laws of the states in which they operate.”

A new law recently went into effect in Florida limiting the initial supply of opioids to 3 days, with a 7-day supply allowed if it is medically necessary. However, the law only applies to acute, short-term pain.  Most of PPOA’s patients suffer from chronic back pain and other long-term chronic conditions.