Honoring Our Veterans on Memorial Day

By Dr. Lynn Webster, PNN Columnist

On Memorial Day, we honor those who lost their lives while serving in the United States military. It is a time when we should also acknowledge the sacrifices all veterans have made, and continue to make, for our country.

Physical and mental trauma are some of the most devastating consequences veterans suffer as a result of their sacrifices. Opioid drug use in military populations is nearly triple that of civilian populations.

A 2014 JAMA study reported that more than 44 percent of active-duty U.S. infantry soldiers suffered from chronic pain. Other reports state that combat injuries cause most of the chronic pain.  

That doesn't surprise me. I've received many emails from veterans who describe their struggles to find treatment for the pain they acquired during their military service.

Here are three typical stories from veterans:

veterans.jpg

A Persian Gulf veteran, John, is being forced to slowly taper from a combination of opioids that he claims worked for him. His dose of medication is being tapered because his physician feels pressured to comply with recommendations of the CDC Opioid Prescribing Guideline.  

John is afraid that the new limit will be inadequate to treat his pain.  

"I am VERY upset with my government, as their draconian 'solutions' to the perceived 'drug problem' will only exacerbate pain issues with legitimate chronic pain patients. I don't think their efforts will have ANY effect on the illegal drug problems that plague the U.S.," John wrote me.  

He may be more fortunate than others. At the time John contacted me, he had a pain specialist who was still able and willing to support his need for treatment. 

Others have not been as lucky. Mark is a 100% disabled veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), severe lower back pain and severe knee problems. After surgery, Mark was only able to get a two week supply of pain medicine. For two and a half months, he suffered without any medication until he was able to go outside the VA system to obtain oxycodone.  

Then there is Jason. He is a young American hero who used opioids to self-medicate his PTSD and chronic pain. His story may help people understand why there are approximately 20 suicides each day by America's veterans.  

Although firearms are a common method of suicide with veterans, the use of prescription medication has also been implicated. Having access to opioids gives veterans a less violent way to end their lives. 

Unfortunately, the number of veteran suicides may even be underreported. As many as 45 percent of drug overdoses -- including those of military members -- might be related to suicide, according to a former past president of the American Psychiatric Association. 

Veterans' suicides make up 18% of all suicides in the U.S. The suicide rate among members of the military is nearly 3 times that of civilians.  In 2012, for the first time in a generation, the number of active duty soldiers who killed themselves exceeded the number of soldiers who were killed in battles.

Approximately 20% of recent war veterans suffer from PTSD, in addition to chronic pain. PTSD was the most common mental health condition for almost 1 million soldiers who served between 2001 and 2014. Nearly one in four of those who served during those years developed PTSD within a year of coming back home. 

Much of the general public and many mental health professionals have doubted that PTSD was a true disorder until recently. Even now, soldiers with symptoms of PTSD face rejection by their military peers and are often feared by society as potentially dangerous. Movies ranging from "American Sniper" to "Thank You for Your Service" frequently depict characters with PTSD struggling to fit into society.  

In real life, those with PTSD symptoms are often labeled as “weak” and removed from combat zones, and sometimes they are involuntarily discharged from military service. 

These disturbing trends are difficult to read anytime, but they seem especially troubling as we commemorate Memorial Day. This is the time for us to acknowledge that those who have served our country deserve the best medical care available.  

Five years ago, retired Gens. Wayne Jonas, MD, and Eric Schoomaker, MD, wrote a commentary in JAMA titled “Pain and Opioids in the Military: We Must Do Better.” Recognizing that veterans often misuse opioids to self-medicate mental health disorders, they proposed teaching members of the military a greater degree of self-management skills such as problem-solving and goal setting.   

Of course, self-management would be preferable to using opioids if it were sufficient to afford veterans a quality of life they deserve. However, teaching self-management skills is often insufficient. That is clear in the cases of John, Mark and Jason. 

On Memorial Day, I hope we can take a moment to think about the men and women who have fought -- and sometimes died -- for a country they believed in.  

I also hope we honor the living by showing them that they deserve treatment for their chronic pain, PTSD, addiction and any other health care issues they may have. We owe it to them. 

_DSC8561.JPG

Lynn R. Webster, MD, is a vice president of scientific affairs for PRA Health Sciences and consults with the pharmaceutical industry. He is a former president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine and 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 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.

Menopause Linked to Chronic Pain

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

It’s no secret that middle-aged women are far more likely than men to have chronic pain and to feel its effects more severely. A large new study tells us some of the reasons why.

VA researchers analyzed the health data of over 200,000 female veterans between the ages of 45 and 64 and found that women with menopause symptoms were nearly twice as likely to have chronic pain and multiple chronic pain diagnoses.

"Changing levels of hormones around menopause have complex interactions with pain modulation and pain sensitivity, which may be associated with vulnerability to either the development or exacerbation of pain conditions," says JoAnn Pinkerton, MD, Executive Director of the North American Menopause Society (NAMS). "This study suggests that menopause symptom burden may also be related to chronic pain experience."

Hormonal change alone wasn’t the only thing many of the women had in common. Those who were overweight, obese or had a mental health diagnosis were also more likely to have chronic pain. Eighteen percent of the female veterans had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), 13 percent suffered from depression and 15 percent had anxiety.

Common changes related to menopause and aging include weight gain, decreased physical activity, impaired sleep and negative mood, which can contribute to chronic pain and are also known to affect pain sensitivity and tolerance.

bigstock-Woman-with-a-painful-headache-27249356.jpg

“Both chronic pain and menopause symptoms are strongly and consistently associated with psychosocial factors and health risk behaviors prevalent in and after the menopause transition,” said lead author Carolyn Gibson, PhD, San Francisco VA Health Care System. “Consideration should be given to integrated approaches to comprehensive care for midlife and older women with chronic pain, such as targeted cognitive behavioral therapy coordinated with interdisciplinary care providers.”    

The study findings are published in the journal Menopause.

A large 2018 study also found a strong association between menopause and symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Researchers at the University of Nebraska Medical Center found that post-menopausal women with RA had a significant increase in functional physical decline. Menopause was also associated with worsening progression of the disease.  

Study Finds Vagus Nerve Stimulation Delays Pain Signals

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Neuromodulation devices that stimulate a key nerve in the neck – the vagus nerve --- have shown potential in treating a variety of chronic pain conditions, including migraines and autoimmune diseases. A new study helps us understand how the devices work.

Researchers studying post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) found that vagus nerve stimulation appears to dampen and delay how the brain responds to pain signals.

"It's thought that people with certain differences in how their bodies -- their autonomic and sympathetic nervous systems -- process pain may be more susceptible to PTSD," said Imanuel Lerman, MD, a pain management specialist and associate professor at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine. “And so we wanted to know if we might be able to re-write this 'misfiring' as a means to manage pain, especially for people with PTSD."

UC SAN DIEGO HEALTH

UC SAN DIEGO HEALTH

Lerman and his colleagues at Veterans Affairs San Diego Healthcare System used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to get a look at the brains of 30 healthy volunteers after a painful heat stimulus was applied to their legs.

Half were treated with vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) for two minutes -- via electrodes placed on the neck – before the heat stimulus. The other half received a mock stimulation.

Researchers found that VNS delayed the response to heat stimulus in several areas of the brain known to be important for sensory and emotional pain processing. These pain-related brain regions were activated ten seconds later than participants who received sham stimulation. Volunteers who received VNS also sweated less in response to the heat.

“Not everyone is the same -- some people may need more vagus nerve stimulation than others to achieve the same outcomes and the necessary frequencies might change over time -- so we'll need to personalize this approach," said Lerman, who reported his findings in the journal PLOS ONE.  "But we are hopeful and looking forward to the next steps in moving this approach toward the clinic."

The next step for researchers is to conduct a clinical study of VNS on military veterans in the San Diego area. They want to determine if at-home vagus nerve stimulation can reduce emotional pain and neural inflammation associated with PTSD. People with PTSD often have intrusive memories, negative thoughts, anxiety and chronic pain. It is usually treated with psychotherapy, anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications.

The Food and Drug Administration has approved VNS for the treatment of pain caused by cluster headache and migraine. A handheld device – called gammaCore –  is currently available by prescription for $600 to treat those conditions. 

The Feinstein Institute for Medical Research recently reported that VNS significantly reduced pain and fatigue associated with lupus, an autoimmune disease that damages joints, skin and internal organs. In a small pilot study, lupus patients who were treated with VNS for five minutes daily had a significant decrease in pain and fatigue after just five days.

An implanted vagus nerve stimulator is also being tested for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis.

Wear, Tear & Care: The Curable App

By Jennifer Kilgore, PNN Columnist

Nobody wants to be told that pain is in their head. If you’ve been in an accident like I have or suffer from a debilitating condition, that translates to: “This pain is your fault. You’re just lazy. If you tried harder, you wouldn’t be in pain.”

Pain is in your head. Pain is a signal that says your body is in danger, and for many people that switch never turns off. It becomes chronic, endless, crippling and traumatizing. This leads to a sort of fossilization in which we are scared to move, because movement hurts. Our lives become smaller, but the pain becomes larger until it consumes the entire world.

When my pain therapist suggested I try EMDR therapy (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) for post-traumatic stress disorder, I resisted for two years. Why should I have to make a concerted effort to get rid of my pain and work through memories of crumpled metal and squealing tires? Why was it my responsibility to fix things when somebody else’s negligence was the cause of my injuries?

As always, it’s more complicated than that. My pain signals have coalesced over the past 15 years into a body-wide tangle of energy that never stops hurting. It spreads from my back up to my neck, down into my arms and legs, wrapping around my ribs. Pills are thrown into the void. Devices are worn. The pain remains.

I can’t even remember how I stumbled across the Curable app. I think it came up on a Facebook ad, though I do get many Google Alerts for this type of product. Either way, I now have it downloaded and pay for the annual subscription ($6.39 per month).

CLARA

CLARA

The Curable app is like having a virtual therapist -- her name is Clara -- on my phone designed specifically for chronic pain. I can work through these memories in the comfort of my own home, on my own time.

As described in their FAQ: “Curable is an online pain psychology program. Modern research tells us that recurring pain is caused by multiple complex and interconnected factors. Treatments like drugs or chiropractic try to target some of the chemical or structural issues, but these issues are only part of the equation when it comes to recurring pain.”

Pain researchers have discovered that the way we act and think play a significant role in pain reduction. I’m not saying that people don’t have valid injuries -- I broke my back in four places and have two fusions in my neck -- but I know, deep down, that my level of pain does not make sense. There were structural abnormalities. Most of them were fixed.

What’s left?

The rest remains in my head, and I am quite curious to see what is actually pain and what part is catastrophizing, fear, anger and stress. Curable says that this cycle of pain can be “deprogrammed,” and the app trains patients to tease apart what is real pain and what is not.

The program is easy enough to use. It can be done entirely on a computer, tablet or phone, and it’s compatible with almost every device.

Clara, the virtual pain coach, interacts with you by a stream of text messages, and it honestly feels like I’m talking to a friend who just gets me. She sends information and leads you from one activity to another, offering resources, exercises and funny gifs to help you “reverse the cycle of pain going on in your brain.”

Each session is between five and 20 minutes, and lectures run about the same length. Some of them are difficult -- for instance, I’m resisting the “Identifying Your Stressors” exercise in which I have to free-write, simply because I don’t want to face that part of my brain. It’s hard. I don’t particularly like waging battle against a part of myself, no matter how unwelcome that part is.

Clara even noted that many users find the writing exercises difficult and avoid them in favor of the other activities, because who wants to commit to such a level of self-reflection?

The makers of the app know this, and they get how hard it is because all three of the founders suffered from chronic pain. That level of understanding makes all the difference.

Curable app.png

Curable is designed for three weekly sessions, though any pace can be set. A survey of users showed that some reported a reduction to zero pain within three weeks of trying the app. Everyone’s pain experience is unique, however, and they acknowledge that “there is no correlation between the total number of exercises you complete… and when you will begin to experience relief.”

As they also note, “Racing through the program ‘to feel better faster’ will not work.” I’ve found that racing through is pretty much impossible, because facing all of these thoughts and memories is exhausting.

I’m very excited about this app. I think it will be a great complement to my EMDR therapy and can keep me on track when my therapist can’t. Clara even speaks to me in a way that only other pain patients do. She understands our language, and the relief from that is staggering.

You can try the Curable app for free here.

JW Kain.jpg

Jennifer Kain Kilgore is an attorney editor for both Enjuris.com and the Association of International Law Firm Networks. She has chronic back and neck pain after two car accidents.

You can read more about Jennifer on her blog, Wear, Tear, & Care.  

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.

The Link Between Trauma and Chronic Pain

Ann Marie Gaudon, Columnist

It has long been accepted in my field that chronic pain is a frequent outcome of trauma. There is extensive evidence to suggest that people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) report chronic pain with striking frequency regardless of the nature of the traumatic experience. You don’t need to have been diagnosed with PTSD to be negatively and chronically affected by trauma.

One strong and commonly referred to theoretical model explaining the connection between trauma and chronic pain is known as the Mutual Maintenance Model. A person may respond to reminders of trauma through stress response, which may include avoidant coping (trying to avoid your distress by zoning out with video games or drinking to numb yourself), fatigue and lethargy associated with depression, pain perception elevated by anxiety, and intrusive memories of the trauma itself.

These considerable mental demands limit one’s capacity to control or decrease their physical pain and have the opposite effect of exacerbating and maintaining pain. To put it simply, experiencing pain prompts memories of the trauma, and memories of the trauma prompt experiences of pain.

The end result is that a person is trapped in a vicious cycle whereby the symptoms of trauma and chronic pain interact to produce self-perpetuating psychological distress and physical pain.

bigstock-Doctor-Treating-Female-Patient-102022697.jpg

A second model, called the Shared Vulnerability Model, suggests that the interaction of trauma, psychological vulnerability (anxiety, loss of control over thoughts and feelings), and a lowered physiological threshold for alarm reactions all influence negative emotional responses, resulting in the development of PTSD and the co-occurrence of chronic pain.

This chronic arousal of the nervous system may be responsible for the symptoms of both PTSD and chronic pain. There is research which suggests that chronic pain and PTSD are not necessarily distinct from each other, but rather connected and overlapping. The fact that sympathetic activity (the gas pedal to your distress) is increased, and parasympathetic activity (the brake pedal to your distress) is decreased, both in general and in response to trauma-related stimuli, is one of the most robust findings within the PTSD literature.

Disastrous events can strike any of us, at any time in life, and no one is immune. Some events are relational such as a school shooting or a rape, while others are natural disasters like earthquakes or floods. After any distressing or life-threatening event, psychological trauma may set in. One may go on to develop extreme anxiety, depression, anger, or PTSD and may have ongoing problems with sleep, physical pain and even relationships.

Healthy ways of coping include getting support, avoiding alcohol and drugs, seeing loved ones, exercising, enhancing sleep habits, and other methods of self-care. Certainly not everyone with chronic pain has experienced trauma and vice versa. However, there is extensive research to show that PTSD and chronic pain are intimately connected.

Seek an experienced trauma therapist if you feel you are not coping well. Trauma therapy is highly specialized, takes place in healing stages at your pace, and works to re-wire what’s become maladaptive in your brain by laying down new and healthier neural pathways. Click here to see a YouTube video that explains that process.

The work will be hard and challenging, but the good news is that many people heal from trauma and go on to live rich and rewarding lives. Some offer inspiration to others who have also endured life-altering negative experiences.

People become sick and pained, and people also heal. Suffering can skyrocket, and suffering can also take a nosedive. You do the work as if your life depended on it, because experience tells us it often does.

anne+marie.jpg

Ann Marie Gaudon is a registered social worker and psychotherapist in the Waterloo region of Ontario, Canada with a specialty in chronic pain management.  She has been a chronic pain patient for 33 years and works part-time as her health allows. For more information about Ann Marie's counseling services, visit her website.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

VA Studies Find Little Evidence for Medical Cannabis

By Pat Anson, Editor

There is not enough evidence to support the effectiveness and safety of cannabis and cannabinoid products in treating chronic pain or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), according to a pair of new studies published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

Researchers at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reviewed 27 clinical studies on the benefits and harms of cannabis in treating chronic pain, and found most of the studies were small, many had methodological flaws, and the long-term effects of cannabis were unclear because there was little follow-up in most of the studies.

None of the studies directly compared cannabis with opioid pain medication and there was no good-quality data on how cannabis affects opioid use, according to researchers.

“Although cannabis is increasingly available for medical and recreational use, little methodologically rigorous evidence examines its effects in patients with chronic pain. Limited evidence suggests that it may alleviate neuropathic pain, but evidence in other pain populations is insufficient,” wrote lead author Shannon Nugent, PhD, VA Portland Health Care System.

“Even though we did not find strong, consistent evidence of benefit, clinicians will still need to engage in evidence-based discussions with patients managing chronic pain who are using or requesting to use cannabis.”

Medical marijuana is legal in 28 states and the District of Columbia, and many patients are using it for pain relief. Up to 80 percent of people who seek medical cannabis do so for pain management and nearly 40 percent of those on long-term opioid therapy for pain also use cannabis. Veterans Affairs policy currently doesn’t allow for cannabis use in the huge VA healthcare system, even in states where it is legal.

According to a 2014 Inspector General’s study, more than half of the veterans being treated at the VA have chronic pain, as well as other conditions that contribute to it, such as PTSD.

‘Very Scant Evidence’ on Cannabis for PTSD

More than a third of the patients who use cannabis in states where it is legal list PTSD as their primary reason. But, as with chronic pain, VA researchers found “very scant evidence” to support the use of cannabis to treat PTSD.

“Despite the limited research on benefits and harms, many states allow medicinal use of cannabis for PTSD. The popular press has reported many stories about individuals who had improvement in their PTSD symptoms with cannabis use, and cross-sectional studies have been done in which patients with more severe PTSD reported cannabis use as a coping strategy,” wrote lead author Maya O’Neil, PhD, VA Portland Health Care System.

“However, it is impossible to determine from these reports whether cannabis use is a marker for more severe symptoms or is effective at reducing symptoms, or whether the perceived beneficial effects are the result of the cannabis, placebo effects, or the natural course of symptoms.” 

Clinical evidence may be lacking, but supporters of medical marijuana say they’ve seen plenty of anecdotal evidence that cannabis works for both pain and PTSD.

“They claim no benefits are shown but with the number of people we have met with PTSD that have been able to function and improve with the use of cannabis, I would say the ‘proof is in the pudding.’ Seeing their lives improve tremendously says a lot about success,” said Ellen Lenox Smith, a PNN columnist who is co-director of cannabis advocacy for the U.S. Pain Foundation and a caregiver under Rhode Island’s medical marijuana program. 

“We have not met a person yet that has not been enjoying the improved quality of their life using cannabis for PTSD. We fought a long hard battle to have it included as a qualifying condition and it was worth the battle. Patients are finding peace and calm they were not experiencing before using cannabis. Sleep has improved and without a good night rest, anyone's next day is a terrible struggle.”

Like it or not, the “horse is out of the barn” when it comes to cannabis use, according to an editorial also published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

“Even if future studies reveal a clear lack of substantial benefit of cannabis for pain or PTSD, legislation is unlikely to remove these conditions from the lists of indications for medical cannabis,” wrote Sachin Patel, MD, Vanderbilt Psychiatric Hospital.

“It will be up to front-line practicing physicians to learn about the harms and benefits of cannabis, educate their patients on these topics, and make evidence-based recommendations about using cannabis and related products for various health conditions. In parallel, the research community must pursue high-quality studies and disseminate the results to clinicians and the public.”