The Importance of Understanding Research

By Janice Reynolds, Guest Columnist

Almost daily we are told that a study shows this or research shows that, a physician makes claims based on research, or the news media blaring “New Study Shows.” 

Even worse, more and more frequently we are seeing providers, government and the media basing their opinions or actions on poor evidence -- or many times the total lack of it.  I have a tee shirt which says: “Show me the evidence and critical thinking.”

It is time for people in pain as well as their advocates to understand research studies and hold accountable those that are cited.

Evaluating research is a little complicated and time consuming, but it is something every medical person needs to do.  More importantly, the media needs to justify their reliance on research and identify that what they are saying is true, rather than something totally lacking in validation and objectivity (which unfortunately is most often the case). 

After all, the media claim to do careful research before doing a story. Politicians should also have accountability for objective truth.

As people living in pain, our arguments and comments are more effective if we show that we know what we're talking about.  It may not change someone's mind if they are opiophobic or dislike and distrust people in pain, but it’s important to try.

I’ve made repeated requests to the Portland Press Herald to give me the citations for their claim that “studies have shown conclusively that opioids not only don’t work for chronic pain but make it worse.” I haven’t changed their minds, but it is ammunition in the battle for actual truth.

These are some of the terms the public and people in pain need to understand:

Correlation and causation: Probably the most important.  Just because something happens at the same time, does not mean one thing “causes” the other.    My husband teaches statistics at a university and the example he uses is when the number of new boat licenses increases the number of manatees being killed. This does not mean boat licenses kill manatees.  This correlation means causation thing is rampant in media stories about pain.

Anecdotes and surveys:  An anecdote is an account not necessarily true or reliable, because it is based on personal experience rather than facts or research.  For every anecdote, there are often many more which tell a totally different story. An example would be: "My son died of an opioid overdose. We have to stop these drugs from killing people." Any death is tragic, but opioids do not in themselves kill people. 

Surveys also rely on someone’s self-reporting.  The one used extensively by the media and politicians is that 3 in every 4 heroin addicts got their start taking prescription opioids. That particular survey relied on addicts to tell the truth, did not not include addicts outside of treatment, and most importunately did not include millions who have taken opioids for pain and never even touched heroin.  Surveys and anecdotes are worthless as evidence.   

Case studies:  These are things that happened to a person, group or situation at a single time and/or place; i.e. a case history.  The CDC makes use of case studies to “prove” in their seminars the correctness of their opioid guidelines.  Case studies are of interest, but are not valid evidence for the same reasons anecdotes are not.

Data mining: This is the process of collecting, searching through, and analyzing a database to discover patterns or relationships. In our case, it usually means they have gone through death certificates, insurance records and the like.  Once again, this is not a source of evidence as there is no way to verify the validity of the data, as well as other confounding factors.  Data mining is the CDC’s favorite method and it has been shown to be highly inaccurate. It does not have a place in medicine, except to develop insights and lead to actual research.

Statistics: These by themselves do not mean much. Researchers need to use the appropriate statistical analyses before publishing them.  Medical providers, media and politicians need to acknowledge what analysis method was used and what the outcomes were.

Qualitative vs quantitative: Qualitative research gathers information that is not in numerical form. For example, diary accounts, questionnaires, case studies and anecdotal accounts are used to gain an understanding of underlying reasons, opinions and motivations. Qualitative data is typically descriptive data and as such is harder to analyze than quantitative data. It can never be “proof.”

Quantitative research looks at numbers, it is the “hard” science. Quantitative research is used to quantify the problem by way of generating numerical data that can be transformed into useable statistics that can be evaluated.

Objectivity: Objectivity means being aware and honest about how one's beliefs, values and biases affect the research process. This also applies to the reviewing, reporting, and selection of research.  The media especially lacks objectivity in their reporting of all issues related to people in pain and the “opioid addiction epidemic”.

Method:  How the study was done; meta-analysis, random controlled trials, non-random controlled trials, survey, cohort or case controlled study, or even expert opinion. The latter is only acceptable when no other research exists on the subject.

Sampling: The number of participants and who they were. A small number has a lower strength of evidence.  My favorite example of a “who” was a study done which claimed to show analgesics caused people to be homicidal.  Their sampling took place in a prison where all the participants were murderers!  Doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out this was biased.

Strength of evidence: This is probably the most important term when it comes to research.  There are many different tables used (easy to Google) that show a hierarchy of what is strong evidence, what is weak and what is non-existent.  Even the CDC recognized the evidence for their opioid guidelines was weak to non-existent. Most studies on the opioid epidemic or people in pain are inherently weak because the evidence is so poor.  

Proof:  Research seldom ever provides “proof.”  If multiple studies come up with the same results, then some might call it proof; however it is safer to say “likely.”  When talking about pain, medications, interventions or even addiction, the word “proof” should be off the docket.

Critical thinking: Critical thinking is the identification and evaluation of evidence to guide decision making. Another definition is making reasoned judgments that are logical and well thought out, a way of thinking in which you don't simply accept all arguments and conclusions you are exposed to, but rather question such arguments and conclusions. 

Those who are prejudiced and biased against people in pain or opiophobic rarely use any critical thinking skills at all.  In fact, after a comment I had made on a newspaper article, someone assassinated my character by saying my head was filled with mashed potatoes and I lacked any critical thinking skills whatsoever.  There was more and it was pretty funny.  This unfortunately is characteristic of the media, politicians and general public. No matter what we say or how truthful our comments, they will not hear. 

Evidence based: This means looking at best available clinical evidence from methodical research.  The word term is thrown around lightly and unless you have the actual “evidence” to back it up, it is meaningless. 

Several years ago, I was part of the original Pain PEP (Putting Evidence into Practice) team for the Oncology Nursing Society. We studied pharmaceutical interventions for nociceptor and neuropathic pain in the adult cancer patients. It took us two years to evaluate recent guidelines and research studies, and to write our guidelines based on the strength of the evidence. If you say something is “evidence based,” be prepared to show it.

One last comment on the issue of research and pain management: There are integral difficulties in pain research as people vary in their reaction to pain, the cause of their pain, and how they respond to treatment. Any research that uses the term “chronic pain” is already working with a false premise because there are so many different types of pain that are persistent.  Any research that looks at a “class” of medication such as opioids or antidepressants is also employing a false basis as well.

Pain management is an art and a science, and any attempts to standardize it will only harm people in pain.  

Janice Reynolds is a retired nurse who specialized in pain management, oncology, and palliative care. She has lectured across the country at medical conferences on different aspects of pain and pain management, and is co-author of several articles in peer reviewed journals. 

Janice has lived with persistent post craniotomy pain since 2009.  She is active with The Pain Community and writes several blogs for them, including a regular one on cooking with pain. 

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

Insufficient Evidence: How Opioid Deniers Spin Studies

By Roger Chriss, Columnist

Opioid medications are coming under fire again as being ineffective for chronic pain management.

Charles Pattavina, MD, president of the Maine Medical Association, told the Portland Press Herald that "there is no clinical indication for opioid medication for the treatment of chronic pain."

And Stanford psychiatrist Anna Lembke, MD, said in Vox that “if opioids worked long-term, I would have no problem with patients taking them.”

But sweeping generalizations like these oversimplify a complex situation. Chronic pain is a highly heterogeneous feature of a wide variety of diseases and disorders. And opioids are a broad class of pain medications that come in different doses and are administered by different routes.

Thus, a claim that opioids do not work for chronic pain is too simplistic. Medical researchers investigate carefully posed questions about specific drugs and conditions using the statistical method known as hypothesis testing.

Researchers cannot and do not investigate if “opioids” work for “chronic pain.” Good research is more narrowly focused, such as these clinical studies:

“Tapentadol extended release for the management of chronic neck pain”

“Effectiveness and Safety of Once-Daily Extended-Release Hydrocodone in Individuals Previously Receiving Immediate-Release Oxycodone for Chronic Pain”

“Oxycodone for neuropathic pain in adults”

The results are equally specific. In the first example above, the authors conclude that “our results suggest that tapentadol ER, started at 100 mg/day, is effective and well tolerated in patients with moderate-to-severe chronic neck pain, including opioid-naïve subjects.” Similarly precise statements are found in any such article.

Sometimes researchers will perform a meta-analysis or review in which they assemble a collection of existing research articles and, after a statistical analysis, attempt to draw broader conclusions. Examples include:

“Opioids for chronic noncancer pain: a meta-analysis of effectiveness and side effects”

“Opioids for chronic pain: new evidence, new strategies, safe prescribing”

“The Effectiveness and Risks of Long-Term Opioid Therapy for Chronic Pain: A Systematic Review for a National Institutes of Health Pathways to Prevention Workshop”

The last article above is often cited by opioid deniers, even though it concludes that “evidence is insufficient to determine the effectiveness of long-term opioid therapy for improving chronic pain and function.”

"Evidence is insufficient” means that no determination can be made one way or the other about opioid medications. It does not prove that opioids are ineffective for chronic pain.

This leads to the final defense of opioid deniers: Demand an impossibly high standard of evidence. Specifically, they want the “gold standard” of clinical research: a double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized trial of a specific drug for a particular condition.

To satisfy this standard, we would have to test every opioid medication against every medical condition causing chronic pain in a variety of different groups of people. This would mean thousands of trials, each performed multiple times, before any meaningful conclusions could be drawn about opioid medications in general. The time and costs involved would be prohibitive in the extreme.

So instead we use observational data and statistical methods to derive reasonable conclusions, as found in the articles above. This approach is widely used in many areas of medical research. In pain research, it has clarified how certain opioid medications can be used to address various chronic pain conditions.

To be clear, opioid therapy can help manage a variety of forms of chronic pain. Not all pain, and not for all patients. And always under the care and guidance of medical professionals.

The goal of opioid therapy is to improve quality of life, and available evidence strongly supports that it does so.

Roger Chriss suffers from Ehlers Danlos syndrome and is a proud member of the Ehlers-Danlos Society.

Roger is a technical consultant in Washington state, where he specializes in mathematics and research.

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.

Trump Budget Cuts Would Further Limit Pain Research

By Pat Anson, Editor

The Trump administration has proposed another $1.2 billion in budget cuts for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which experts say could hamper already anemic efforts at developing new treatments for chronic pain.  Most of the reductions at NIH would come from research grant funding.

Only about 1 percent of the NIH budget is designated for pain research, even though more Americans suffer from pain than heart disease, diabetes and cancer combined.

The proposed $1.2 billion reduction in this year’s NIH budget is in addition to the $5.8 billion cut the Trump Administration has already proposed for the agency in 2018.

The $7 billion in savings will be used to help pay for an enhanced border wall with Mexico and increased military spending.

The White House Office of Management and Budget says the NIH budget for 2018 “eliminates programs that are duplicative or have limited impact on public health” and would “help focus resources on the highest priority research and training activities.”

"I will be the first one down lobbying against this," said Ann Romney, who suffers from multiple sclerosis and is the wife of former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

"Nothing comes from nothing. If you don't have that funding, there will be nothing," she told Yahoo News. "There will be no new treatments, there will be no new drug therapies. Progress in medicine will come to a halt."

Pain Research Already Limited

The lack of spending on pain research -- by both the government and the healthcare industry – was a problem long before the Trump administration came out with its budget plans.

In 2012, researchers at Johns Hopkins University estimated that chronic pain costs the U.S. economy up to $635 billion a year in healthcare costs and lost productivity. Yet the NIH spent only $358 million on pain research that year, according to journalist Judy Foreman in her book, “A Nation in Pain.”

“It is a huge burden with very little actual research going into it. And still a lot of unmet medical need,” said Gabriel Baertschi, CEO of Grünenthal, a German pharmaceutical company. “The odds of succeeding in pain research are lower than in other areas. It’s much more complex than other diseases in a sense that if you hit one target you are not necessarily resolving pain. Pain is multi-dimensional. That explains why from a research point of view you don’t always succeed.”

Grünenthal is a research-oriented company that focuses on finding new treatments for conditions such as bladder pain and Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS). Recently the FDA designated an experimental drug being developed by Grünenthal as a potential breakthrough therapy for CRPS. The company is now in advanced stages of clinical trials.

Because it’s smaller and privately owned, Baertschi says Grünenthal can afford to explore new treatments for rare diseases that “Big Pharma” companies are not interested in developing.

“Most of the companies that were active in pain have closed their pain research centers,” he told PNN in an interview last month. “I think a lot of companies are pulling out because the cost of developing pain drugs has been immense. If you look at the latest generation of pain drugs, it has cost billions of dollars.

“That has scared off companies and I think companies are more focused on areas where the returns are better from a pricing point of view. Because quite frankly, if you look at oncology you can get (drug) prices that are far better than for pain.”

Insurers Refuse to Pay for New Treatments

Another problem is insurance coverage. A few years ago the U.S. Food and Drug Administration pressured drug makers to develop abuse deterrent technology for opioids to reduce the risk of abuse and addiction. Some companies spent hundreds of millions of dollars developing abuse deterrent opioids that insurers now refuse to pay for because they are more expensive.

“Payers are a huge barrier to innovative therapies because they block coverage. Without insurance coverage there is little incentive to invest,” said Lynn Webster, MD, a leading expert and researcher in pain management, who is vice president of Scientific Affairs at PRA Health Sciences. 

“In the past 30 years there haven't been more than 3 new chemical entities approved by the FDA. One reason is that we don't understand enough about the different mechanisms generating pain,” Webster explained. “I see our current approach is similar to how cancer research was conducted 60 years ago.  Back then most cancers were treated with the same monotherapies.  Once research delved into the multi-mechanistic contributions to cancer, therapeutic advances were possible. We need to do the same for pain. And insurance has to pay for the innovations.”

“Pain is unfortunately penalized by society. People feel there is enough treatment available,” said Grünenthal’s Baertschi. “There are a lot of very good pain therapies out there. But there are quite a few areas, especially niche areas and specific pain types, that are not being treated adequately and that’s where we focus our research.”

One analyst said it is unlikely Congress will go along with the proposed cuts in the NIH budget because it funds politically popular programs.

"At worst, we believe NIH (funding) will remain flat in a continuing resolution if there is a government spending standoff," wrote Cowen analyst Doug Schenkel in a note to investors. "Although NIH funding hasn't kept up with inflation, the only time there were cuts to the agency in the past decade was when Congress' hand was forced by sequestration."

A Coalition to Save NIH Funding has also been formed to lobby against the budget cuts.

"We were dismayed to learn that the NIH is vulnerable to deep funding cuts," said Carrie Jones of JPA Health Communications, which is managing the coalition. "Each day America benefits from the innovation and scientific discoveries made at the NIH. We won't sit idly by and watch critical research be stifled."