Rheumatoid Arthritis Drug Linked to Overdoses

Pat Anson, Editor

A drug that’s long been used to treat rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune diseases has been linked to dozens of deaths in the U.S. and Australia, mainly because patients have taken it daily rather than the recommended weekly dose, according to a new study published in the Medical Journal of Australia.

Methotrexate was originally developed and is still used for chemotherapy because of its ability to stop the growth and spread of tumors. Because it is also effective as an immune system inhibitor, low doses of methotrexate became a front line therapy for rheumatoid arthritis in the 1950’s. It is also used to treat psoriasis, lupus, sarcoidosis, and inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s.

Researchers say methotrexate is safe when taken once or twice a week, but the drug is so potent that accidental daily dosing can be lethal.

“The unusual dosing schedule of low dose methotrexate is associated with a risk that it will be prescribed, dispensed or administered daily instead of weekly,” said lead author Rose Cairns, PhD, of the NSW Poisons Information Centre in Australia.

“Used appropriately, methotrexate is considered safe and efficacious; accidental daily dosing, however, can potentially be lethal. Higher or more frequent doses can result in gastro-intestinal mucosal ulceration, hepatotoxicity, myelosuppression, sepsis and death.”

In a review of medication errors in Australia from 2004 to 2014, researchers linked methotrexate to 22 deaths, including seven cases in which erroneous daily dosing was documented. One patient took methotrexate for 10 consecutive days. Reasons for the errors included patient misunderstanding and incorrect packaging of the drug by pharmacists.

A similar study of medication errors in the U.S. over a 4 year period identified over 100 methotrexate dosing errors that resulted in 25 deaths. Over a third (37%) of the errors were attributed to the prescriber, 20% to the patient, 19% to pharmacists, and 18% to administration by a health care professional.

The researchers also found a “worrying increase” in the number of medication errors just in the past year.

“It is difficult to explain this increase, but the risk of methotrexate medication error may be increasing as the population ages. Older people may be at increased risk because of a range of problems that includes confusion, memory difficulties, and age-related decline in visual acuity,” said Cairns.

Cairns and her colleagues say more needs to be done by drug makers and health professionals to reduce the risk of methotrexate overdosing, such as clearer labeling, smaller sized packages, and distinctly colored tablets.

"Methotrexate use is likely to continue increasing as Australia's population ages, so that additional measures are needed to prevent these errors," the authors concluded.

5 Tips on Leaving Your Career Due to Health Issues

By Ellen Lenox Smith, Columnist

Leaving your career due to chronic pain and illness can be heartbreaking, but for some of us it’s a necessary step.

There was never a day in my life as a teacher that I didn’t love getting up and going to work, yet that career had to end due to the progression of Ehlers Danlos syndrome and sarcoidosis. I felt so lost and not sure who I would be without the career I had.

So, one day before retiring, I went for a walk at the Scituate Reservoir in Rhode Island with my dogs at the time, Corey and Carmel. I made the decision to not think about all the emotions entering my mind -- trying to push those negative thoughts away so I could de-stress. I only allowed myself to look and listen to nature.

Within minutes, I started to have words and thoughts come into my head. Before I knew it, I had to come home, sit at the computer and start writing. The first of what turned out to be over a hundred poems poured out of me. I always laugh when I share this experience, for I am not particularly into poetry.

This was the first of my eventual one hundred poems, which helped cleanse my emotions and prepare for announcing my need for retirement and a life with two progressive conditions:    

ELLEN LENOX SMITH

ELLEN LENOX SMITH

I Attended a Concert This Morning

It was that time to escape, to go for an adventure. We were attending a concert. All ten of our legs got into the car to begin the trip. No clues had been provided to us to prepare for what an impact this performance would have on the rest of our day.

We arrived, opened the door and got out, some of us more easily than others, and then shut the door off from life as we knew it…

It seems that we were late for the concert. It was already in progression. We knew when we arrived that we would have to follow the rules. We had to turn off everything from our lives; the cell, the TV, the radio, computer and most importantly, “the mind”.

We began to walk and quickly heard the concert. It felt loud and overwhelming at first. It felt crowded listening to it despite a lot of space provided. It was too much to hear, too much to absorb. And “the mind”, it wanted to come on, even though it knew it wasn’t invited. But it seemed to finally learn how to respect the rule.

As it cooperated, the concert began to take on a new dimension of sounds and feelings. It became soft, clearer, calmer and incredibly comforting. This concert became exceptional, being absorbed in every space of the mind and body.

And all that was needed to feel this was to just turn off everything else.

The concert never came to a close, but it was time we return to the car and journey back to home as we know and love it. But, we knew we had had an experience that gave us strength and renewal to our lives.

Corey, Carmel and Mom all took a moment to enjoy nature and listen to the truth of life. It was a concert that will never be forgotten. A lesson was learned, “turn it all off”, attend the concert of nature. It’s there for us all and is open at all times.

Looking back, I learned that writing about my emotions helped me face the changes that were happening to my life. It was a very cleansing process that I entered and I continue to do it.

Here are some tips if you are also dealing with the loss of your career:

  1. Try writing down emotions that are swirling in your head. You will gain more than you might realize with this process. Many write to the US Pain Foundation for help and I respond to them, but often I do not hear back from them. I believe this is because they’ve cleansed their emotions by just writing down their story and frustrations.
  2. Accept that you will have to redefine who you are. I was a teacher by profession, but have discovered I am still teaching, just in a different way.
  3. Remember you are not alone for many have also had to face the loss of their career. Try to find comfort in knowing this. I talk to myself and say that if they can do this, so can I!
  4. Mourn your losses. You are human and allowed to do this, but remember to move on from this loss too. You are more than your career. There are others things in life that will make you feel worthwhile and productive. It will take work to figure out what you will do next, but it is a worthwhile effort.
  5. Try to not get stuck on “Why me?” Instead, try to find a way to move on with acceptance and grace for others to learn from. I always remind myself that although my four sons are now adults, they are still observing how I handle my life, including this process of letting go and redefining. I want to be remembered by them for trying, fighting and not giving up.

I know it is heartbreaking to have to step away from a career, especially if it is one you love. But you also have to remind yourself that you have one life to live, and you need to redefine yourself and find things that will bring meaning, joy and happiness back, despite the loss.

I know this is hard to do, but the effort will pay off in the end. Despite illness, you can discover new things about yourself and have a positive impact in life. Be strong, reach out for support and may you, too, discover there is life despite your huge loss.

Ellen Lenox Smith and her husband Stuart live in Rhode Island. They are co-directors for medical marijuana advocacy for the U.S. Pain Foundation and serve as board members for the Rhode Island Patient Advocacy Coalition. For more information about medical marijuana, visit their website.

Ellen recently published her new book, It Hurts Like Hell!: I live with pain -- and have a good life, anyway.”

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.

Staying Positive But Still Needing Support

By Ellen Lenox Smith, Columnist

It took over 50 years for me to be diagnosed correctly and to finally understand what I have been suffering from for so many years – sarcoidosis and Ehlers Danlos syndrome. The latter is actually something that I was born with.

Every day of my life, I have to work to get through the day in as positive way as I can muster. Yet, it is clear people still don’t understand how brave I am trying to be.  I am still in need of support. I live with two incurable, painful conditions that will keep progressing.

Despite these diagnoses, last month I was discharged by a nurse from a support organization called Vital Decisions. After taking me on as a client on their own initiative last April, it was stated that their requirements had changed to continue with a client.

Since they believe I am doing a good job, with my husband managing my health and making the necessary decisions one has to face, I no longer qualify for their support.  

ellen lenox smith

ellen lenox smith

Believe me, I knew where this conversation was going, for this was not the first time this has happened to me. You put on a smile, adopt a positive attitude, take on your health conditions, work hard to live life with them; and then someone assumes you must be all set and you are sent off on your own. Something is just wrong with this process.

With long term chronic pain, others need to understand that even those of us presenting positively still need their support. It takes a lot of work to keep the spirits up, act pleasant around you, and act like life is normal. Don’t think we aren’t at times scared, overtired, and overwhelmed from living with pain.

And believe me, even on our good days, you would not want to climb into our bodies. So, we still need you to care about us!

I have had friends disappear since my story is too sad to be around. I have also had to live with judgement due to my smile -- which is seen as a sign that I must be doing just fine. But would you rather have me be that miserable person that is angry, lashing out at others, and giving up on finding purpose and meaning to my life?

And, how is it that in that same week I got discharged from Vital Decisions, another doctor sent me a note that his practice is putting me in their new program called the Specialty Care Center, which will help support me with my cardiac issues? Am I the same person that just got let go by my support nurse?

If you see someone you know coping with a difficult medical issue, please don’t assume that they are just fine if they have a smile on their face. Ask them how they are doing, let them vent, care about them, and be proud of them for trying to get through a difficult journey while being pleasant.

Ellen Lenox Smith suffers from Ehlers Danlos syndrome and sarcoidosis. Ellen and her husband Stuart live in Rhode Island. They are co-directors for medical marijuana advocacy for the U.S. Pain Foundation and serve as board members for the Rhode Island Patient Advocacy Coalition.

For more information about medical marijuana, visit their 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.

Why You Should Consider Medical Marijuana

(Editor’s note: Pain News Network is pleased to welcome Ellen Lenox Smith as our newest columnist. Ellen has suffered from chronic pain all of her life, but it wasn’t until a few years ago that she discovered the pain relieving benefits of medical marijuana. In future columns, Ellen will focus on marijuana and how it can be used as pain medication. Medical marijuana is legal in 23 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. But even in states where it is legal, doctors may frown upon marijuana and drop patients from their practice for using it.)

By Ellen Lenox Smith, Columnist

Why -- at the age of 57 -- would one ever consider turning to medical marijuana? 

I wondered the same thing after being sent to a pain doctor just before another surgery in 2006. After reviewing my records and seeing that I was unresponsive to pain medication, the doctor clearly had no idea what to suggest, except trying medical marijuana. 

I was born with Ehlers Danlos syndrome and later also added sarcoidosis to my life. I was living with chronic pain that was preventing me from sleeping, thinking straight, and functioning.

From birth, I had one issue after another reacting to medications. And after 22 surgeries, you can imagine the horror of all I had to endure and the added pain of never knowing the proper relief my body could have from pain medication. Eventually, a DNA drug sensitivity test was ordered and it confirmed I could not metabolize most drugs. This meant no aspirin, Tylenol, or any opiates. 

I took the advice to try medical marijuana with tremendous trepidation. At that time in Rhode Island, you either had to grow your own or buy it on the black market.  Since growing takes about three months, I decided the only way to find out what marijuana would do for me was to find a source and give it a try. 

ELLEN LENOX SMITH

ELLEN LENOX SMITH

When I was able to find some marijuana, I ground it up, heated up some olive oil and let it release the medicine into the oil. I had no choice, since I was told by a pulmonologist that smoking marijuana with sarcoidosis in the chest would be fatal. I wanted to try a different way to administer it.

That night, I measured out one teaspoon of the infused oil. I mixed it with some applesauce and one hour before bedtime, I swallowed it down. I remember being scared -- for I am not one that likes to be out of control of my body. Having smoked marijuana once in college, I hated that sensation. 

As soon as I took the dose, I went to my husband and warned him that I had taken marijuana and to keep an eye out for me. I was convinced this was a stupid thing to be doing and I would be stoned all night.

One hour later, we got in bed, I closed my eyes and before I knew it, it was morning. I had slept the whole night, never waking up once!

I woke up refreshed, not groggy, and ready to take on life again. I had no “high” or stoned sensation like you would guess would happen. 

I learned quickly that someone in pain does not react the same way to cannabis as someone who uses it for recreational reasons. The brain receptors connect with the THC and cannabinoids (the active ingredients in marijuana), and provide safe and gentle pain relief.

I was shocked and thrilled with the result. My husband and I quickly got to work setting up a legal way to grow marijuana. I realized that life was directing us to new topic we just had to advocate for. 

If I was scared to try marijuana, there is no question that others felt the same way -- and we had to let them know how amazing it really is. Society brought us up to be negative about marijuana, yet it was used in our country many years ago and even sold in pharmacies. The success of this medication was squashed, and we were all led to believe that it was bad and dangerous.

What we learned is that no one dies from using marijuana, no one develops organ damage, and with a body in chronic pain -- you can regain your life back. 

Are my conditions cured? No, they are both incurable. But I have been able to advocate, think, feel and live again thanks to using medical marijuana. 

Don’t be scared. Consider how much safer this medication is than all the other pain relief choices out there. Turn your body and your life with pain around. You won’t regret it.

Ellen Lenox Smith and her husband Stuart live in Rhode Island. They are co-directors for medical marijuana advocacy for the U.S. Pain Foundation and serve as board members for the Rhode Island Patient Advocacy Coalition. For more information about medical marijuana, visit their website. 

If you have a question for Ellen about medical marijuana, leave a comment below or send it 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.