Is Ketamine an Opioid?

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

A drug used to treat depression and pain is being touted as possible solution to the opioid crisis.

This week a South Carolina drug maker said it would partner with a medical device company to sell ketamine in take home medication bags that can be administered by an ambulatory pain pump. The idea is to give patients recovering from surgery a safer alternative to opioids.

“We are proud to partner with InfuTronix Solutions to deliver opioid-free pain medication to patients across the country,” Nephron Pharmaceuticals CEO Lou Kennedy said in a statement. “The overuse of opioids is a crisis in America. Non-narcotic pain management is a cost-saving way that companies like ours can help save lives.”

Non-narcotic? Opioid-free?

That’s not what a team of researchers at Stanford University concluded last year after studying how ketamine works in the brain. In a small clinical study, they gave a dozen patients diagnosed with depression a combination of ketamine and naltrexone – an opioid-receptor blocker. To their surprise, naltrexone stopped ketamine from working as an antidepressant.

In effect, the researchers discovered that ketamine works just like oxycodone, hydrocodone and other painkillers – by activating opioid receptors in the brain. 

“Everything that I was taught, and everything that I’ve always taught my students — all of the evidence supports the fact that ketamine is not an opioid,” said lead author Boris Heifets, MD, a clinical assistant professor of anesthesiology, perioperative and pain medicine. “I was really surprised at the results.”

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“And the results were so clear that we ended the study early to avoid exposing additional patients to the ineffective combination treatment,” said co-lead author Nolan Williams, MD, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral science.

The Stanford research, published in The American Journal of Psychiatry, caught psychiatrists and pain management experts by surprise. Some urged caution about the long-term use of ketamine until more can be learned about potential side effects such as addiction. Some depressed patients taken off ketamine have shown signs of withdrawal and became suicidal.

“Given the rapid relapse and potential suicide risk, it is hard to know what to recommend to clinicians. Should they really continue to use the agent beyond an acute course? For how long? In whom?” Alan Schatzberg, MD, a Stanford professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, warned in a commentary. “The drug’s opioid properties need to be considered when considering how best to use it.”

‘A Black Eye to Ketamine’

Talk like that has given ketamine a bad rap, according to experts at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. They’ve published a commentary of their own, defending the use of ketamine as a necessary treatment for depression that doesn’t respond to typical antidepressants.

“A (Stanford) study done late last year delivered a black eye to ketamine, and as a result of the coverage, there was a wholesale acceptance by both potential patients and physicians that ketamine is an opioid,” says Adam Kaplin, MD, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins.

“This is most worrisome if people continue to think this way, particularly in the wake of the opioid epidemic; clinicians won’t refer patients for a treatment, despite that it has been shown to be incredibly effective for many patients with treatment-resistant depression.”

Kaplin says there is ample evidence that ketamine sticks to NMDA receptors in the brain that are involved in learning and memory. Because these NMDA receptors are found together with opioid receptors, Kaplin says it’s no surprise that the can meddle with one another, like interference picked up on a phone call or static on the radio.

“This interference and cross-talk does not mean that ketamine is an opioid, and to wrongly label it as such could eventually keep patients from essential antidepressant medications that could make a huge difference in their quality of life,” said Kaplin, who plans on opening a ketamine clinic.

The debate over whether ketamine is an opioid comes at a time when its use is expanding.  Ketamine was approved by the FDA in 1970 solely as a surgical anesthetic to be taken intravenously or by injection. But a growing number of clinics now offer off-label infusions of ketamine to treat depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and difficult chronic pain conditions such as Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS).

Demand has grown so much there are reports of ketamine shortages. Although ketamine itself is inexpensive, the infusions can cost several hundred dollars and are not covered by insurance.

Ketamine Nasal Spray

Not until this year did the Food and Drug Administration approve the use of ketamine to treat depression, when it okayed a nasal spray (Spravato) made by Janssen Pharmaceuticals that contains a ketamine compound.

The FDA approved Spravato even though 2 out of 3 short term trials failed to prove its effectiveness. The spray was effective in a longer trial, but only when taken with a conventional antidepressant.

Because of the risk of abuse and side effects, Spravato can only be administered in a doctor’s office, where patients can be observed for two hours after taking a dose. A single dose will cost about $900.

The FDA has called the herbal supplement kratom an opioid because it acts on opioid receptors, but the agency has not taken that step with ketamine. Given current attitudes about opioids, it’s fair to say the FDA would have never approved Spravato if it was considered an opiate.

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In addition to its medical uses, ketamine is used as a recreational party drug – known as “Special K” -- because it can cause hallucinations and intense dream-like states.

Whether taken to get high or to treat pain and depression, it’s clear that ketamine is a potent drug that has both harms and benefits. And experts say it needs to be viewed with caution until we know with more certainty how it works.

“Unfortunately, when one approaches ketamine as another antidepressant rather than a drug of abuse, this type of trap is easy to fall into, and in the end, such mistakes can be catastrophic,” Schatzberg said in his commentary. “We have witnessed four decades of supposedly new and safer opioids that have turned out often to be, if anything, even more abusable and lethal."

Finding Safe Shores From Suicidal Thoughts

By Mia Maysack, PNN columnist

When you have lost or almost lost loved ones to suicide, it changes you.  

My first experience with this happened at a young age and I took it very personally, even though it was an intimate, personal decision that didn't involve me. I guess that is one of the things that hurt most about it.  

Time passed, life was experienced and as my health conditions worsened, I found myself on the stone-cold ground of rock bottom -- which granted me a bittersweet comprehension of the temptations to end never-ending pain.

Years later, someone I cared for took her own life, after secretly enduring the late stages of terminal cancer. I’d witnessed that kind of suffering before during my days working in hospice care. This further reshaped my mind around the concept.

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Of course, none of us want to lose anyone, especially in a way such as this, but the question does remain.  Which could be considered more “selfish” -- someone eliminating their life or someone else not wanting them to?

“I want to leave this earth because I feel as though I just can't do it anymore. It truly has nothing to do with anyone else. I am solely human and have reached my absolute breaking point.  Ultimately, I make my own decisions -- though it’s impossible to comprehend the ripple effect my actions will have on others.”

“I don't want you to leave this earth because I care so much about you. I know you feel as though you cannot do this anymore, but I am here for you and have a difficult time understanding why that isn't enough. I would do anything to ease your suffering. There are others who care and need you, so stick around for their sake.”   

The dialogue may as well be night and day, two entirely different realities.  Both lack consideration for the other on either end of the spectrum.  

Some pain sufferers may not have even one support person in their lives who they can turn to when the going gets tough, yet many seem to think the best way to deal with suicide is by not talking about it. They fear that by discussing it and making it real, somehow that will trigger chaos and we'll begin dropping like flies once the seed has been planted. 

The intent of this article is the exact opposite.

Recently I took part in a class where this topic was discussed in a small group session. To my left was a person who had been in pain their entire life. They were over it, pun fully intended, literally in the process of orchestrating a move to someplace where assisted suicide is legal. 

To my right was someone also in pain, who was squeamish about the subject and could not begin to relate to it.

Then there was me, a splash of irony right there in the middle.

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Not too long ago, I took a mental health day at a local beach along Lake Michigan. When I am able to swim, my skills are strong. But as I approached my targeted distance, weather conditions shifted and I was both pulled under and pushed back. It was as though I'd been swept into a riptide and under current at the same time.  

At this point, I was exhausted and in low temperature water far longer than anticipated. Swirling thoughts crashed into my mind, much like the waves that had begun to cover my face. If I'm not able to move into shore I will die.

I've made it through worse, and there's no way this is how it's going to end-- not without a fight. So I powered through the water at full force until I felt as I could no longer – which is when the tip of my toes could finally touch the sand bar.  With a touch of hypothermia and major shock to the system, I made it.     

This is everyday life with chronic pain and illness. The emotions can submerge and escort us to the very edge of sanity, a tsunami that can swallow us whole and leave us fighting for every breath. Sometimes these ailments are much like anchors on our feet, shackling us to inevitable trenches of darkness and gloom.    

Many who can relate to these experiences are traumatized by judgmental stigma, so it's important that we acknowledge it is not only understandable but also normal to feel defeated. 

Observing these feelings as opposed to just absorbing them is a way of co-existence. The relationship with oneself is critical. At some of our lowest points, it is within us to choose the direction of our sails and head to safer shores.   

When navigating the treachery of these waters, our pursuit of quality of life against all odds presents itself as proof that we can make it through this and that we're in it together. We just gotta Keep Our Heads Up!  

If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, PLEASE REACH OUT 

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Mia Maysack lives with chronic migraine, cluster headaches and fibromyalgia. Mia is the founder of Keepin’ Our Heads Up, a Facebook advocacy and support group, and Peace & Love, a wellness and life coaching practice for the chronically ill.

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.

Gabapentinoids Raise Risk of Suicide and Overdose in Younger People

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Gabapentinoids – a class of nerve medication widely prescribed to treat chronic pain – increase the risk of suicide, overdose, traffic accidents and head or body injuries in younger people, according to a large new study published in The British Medical Journal.

Sales of the two main gabapentinoids, pregabalin (Lyrica) and gabapentin (Neurontin), have tripled in recent years in the United States, where they are often promoted in prescribing guidelines as safer alternatives to opioids.

A team of researchers followed nearly 192,000 people enrolled in the Swedish Prescribed Drug Register who filled prescriptions for gabapentinoids on at least two consecutive occasions from 2006 to 2013. That information was compared to data in the Swedish Patient Register, which collects information on hospital admissions and outpatient care, as well as the Swedish Cause of Death Register.

Over the study period, researchers found that patients taking gabapentinoids had higher rates of suicide or suicidal behavior (5.2%), unintentional overdose (8.9%), traffic accidents (6.3%) and head or body injuries (36.7%) than the general population.

The risks were strongest for people who were prescribed pregabalin and were most pronounced among adolescents and young adults aged 15 to 24.  Patients aged 55 and older taking gabapentinoids were not at greater risk.

Researchers believe the drugs may have more impact on younger people because they have faster metabolisms, which could lead to withdrawal problems that affect their impulsivity and emotions.

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“Overall, gabapentinoids seem to be safe for a range of outcomes in older people. However, the increased risks found in adolescents and young adults prescribed gabapentinoids, particularly for suicidal behaviour and unintentional overdoses, warrant further research,” said lead author Seena Fazel, MD, of the University of Oxford in England.

“If our findings are triangulated with other forms of evidence, clinical guidelines may need review regarding prescriptions for young people, and those with substance use disorders. Further restrictions for off-label prescription may need consideration.”

Pregabalin is approved by the FDA to treat diabetic nerve pain, fibromyalgia, post-herpetic neuralgia caused by shingles and spinal cord injuries; while gabapentin is approved for epilepsy and post-herpetic neuralgia. Both drugs are also widely prescribed off-label to treat back pain, depression, migraine and other chronic conditions.

Gabapentinoids are increasingly being used recreationally by addicts who have found the medications enhance the effects of heroin and other opioids. The drugs were recently classified as controlled substances in the UK.

Gabapentin is not currently scheduled as a controlled substance by the DEA, while Lyrica is classified as a Schedule V controlled substance, meaning it has low potential for addiction and abuse.  

A recent clinical review found little evidence the drugs should be used off-label to treat pain and that prescribing guidelines often exaggerate their effectiveness. The CDC’s controversial opioid guideline, for example, calls gabapentin and pregabalin “first-line drugs” for neuropathic pain.

“Despite documentation that these drugs were promoted improperly for off-label treatment of pain, the recent rapid increase in prescribing of gabapentinoids suggests a persisting sense among clinicians that gabapentinoids are highly effective pain medications,” wrote Christopher Goodman, MD, and Allan Brett, MD, of the University of South Carolina School of Medicine.

“Guidelines and review articles have contributed to this perception by often uncritical extrapolation from FDA-approved indications to off-label use.”

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:

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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. 

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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.

Forced Opioid Tapering: ‘The Next Great Experiment’

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Last month the Food and Drug Administration warned doctors not to abruptly discontinue or rapidly taper patients on opioid pain medication. The agency said it had received reports of “serious harm” to patients who’ve been suddenly cutoff, including withdrawal symptoms, uncontrolled pain, psychological distress and suicide.  

A new study published in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment shows just how common the practice is. And how millions of pain patients are being subjected to a public health experiment with hardly anyone keeping track of what happens to them.

“The United States went through a great ‘experiment’ of expanding treatment of pain with opioids which has proved to be disastrous for public health. We have entered the next great ‘experiment’ of discontinuing opioid medications among the millions of Americans who are currently taking them,” said lead author Tami Mark, PhD, senior director of behavioral health at RTI International, a non-profit research institute.

“Little is known about how many individuals are tapering off opioid medications, whether observed tapering follows any… guidelines, and the extent to which rapid tapering is associated with negative consequences.”

Mark and her colleagues looked at medical and pharmacy claims for nearly 500 Medicaid patients in Vermont who had high doses of opioid medication discontinued from 2013 to 2017.

All of the patients were prescribed a daily dose of at least 120 MME (morphine milligram equivalent) and over half had been on that high dose for over a year. 

Although most clinical guidelines recommend a “go slow” approach to opioid tapering – especially for patients on high doses – only 5 percent of the Vermont patients had a tapering period longer than 90 days. The vast majority (86%) were rapidly tapered in 21 days or less, including about half who were cut off from opioids without any tapering.

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that patients on opioids be tapered only 10% a week, with even slower tapers of 10% a month for long-term users. Had those guidelines been applied in Vermont, most tapers would have taken up to a year to complete.

Half of Tapered Patients Hospitalized

What happened to the patients who were cut off? Nearly half were hospitalized or had an emergency room visit for an “opioid-related adverse event” -- a medical code that can mean anything from severe withdrawal symptoms to acute respiratory failure. For tapered patients, the risk of being hospitalized was reduced by 7% for each additional week of tapering.

Researchers don’t know how many of the discontinued patients committed suicide or how many were referred to addiction treatment. Notably, less than one percent received medication assistance treatment (MAT) such as Suboxone.

The study did not look at why patients were taken off opioids or who initiated the discontinuation. But researchers believe some of the rapid discontinuations “may be due to a breakdown in the clinical relationship between physicians and patients” – suggesting the patients were forcibly tapered or abandoned by their doctors.

In its warning to doctors, the FDA strongly recommends that patients not be forcibly tapered and that patients and doctors should jointly agree to a tapering plan.

“Health care professionals should not abruptly discontinue opioids in a patient who is physically dependent. When you and your patient have agreed to taper the dose of opioid analgesic, consider a variety of factors, including the dose of the drug, the duration of treatment, the type of pain being treated, and the physical and psychological attributes of the patient. No standard opioid tapering schedule exists that is suitable for all patients,” the FDA said.

Forced Tapering Widespread

How many patients have been forcibly tapered or discontinued is unclear, but it probably runs in the millions. A recent report from IQVIA found that there were 75 million fewer opioid prescriptions filled last year compared to 2014, with the biggest decline in high dose prescriptions. 

In PNN’s recent survey of nearly 6,000 pain patients, over 80 percent said they had been taken off opioids or had their dose reduced since the CDC released its controversial opioid guideline in 2016. Many were turning to other substances – both legal and illegal – for pain relief. And nearly half said they had considered suicide because their pain is poorly treated.

“I have been forced to taper to 90 MME. I had been stable and functional for 10 years at 135 MME. Now I can no longer work, and can barely take care of my children. I am considering suicide because my pain is unbearable,” one patient told us.

“I have been forcibly tapered by more than half and my pain is not being relieved at this dose. I am now unable to work or care for my children,” another patient wrote. “I live in constant anxiety (which worsens my pain) that I will be abandoned, refused any pain management, or reduced to a dose so low that taking my own life is the only way to escape the pain.”

“My forced taper was a little over a year ago. Before that I lived a small but functional life on high dose opioids. I took the same dose, from the same doctor for over a decade. Then I was forced off of 75% of my dose,” said another patient. “Once we got down to my current dose the medication was no longer enough to control my pain. I now live a tiny, nonfunctional life. I spend all my time in bed watching TV. I never leave the house. Showers are my worst enemy. And I am lucky. I wasn’t abandoned by my doctor.”

A noted critic of opioid prescribing calls reports like these exaggerations. Andrew Kolodny, MD, the Executive Director and founder of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP), told Stateline that the number of doctors who are inappropriately tapering patients is likely very small and should not be blamed on the CDC.

"We have a very real problem in this country. But the CDC guidelines didn't cause it," Kolodny said. "The problem is that millions of Americans have been put on round-the-clock opioids at very high doses and for reasons that doctors now realize were not appropriate.

"What the FDA needs to tell doctors is that because it is so excruciating to come off of opioids, they need to be very selective about who they put on them.”

In a series of Tweets two years ago, Kolodny said patients on high doses should be forcibly tapered “even if patient refuses” and challenged assertions that forced tapering was risky and widespread.

Now Kolodny says he sympathizes with patients but claims they are being manipulated.

“Their emotions are real. But they’re being effectively manipulated to controversialize the CDC guidelines,” he told Stateline.

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Many of Kolodny’s colleagues disagree. Over 300 healthcare professionals warned in a joint letter last year that forced opioid tapering has led to “an alarming increase in reports of patient suffering and suicides” and called for an urgent review of tapering policies at every level of healthcare.

“This is a large-scale humanitarian issue,” the letter warns. “New and grave risks now exist because of forced opioid tapering.” 

Social Support Key to Recovery from Suicidal Thoughts

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Hardly a day goes by that I don’t get an email or a comment left on this website about suicide.

Recently a young military veteran named “Joe” reached out. Joe is depressed and unable to work because he has chronic back and leg pain

“The thing is, I’m just about to turn 28 and can’t fathom how I’m supposed to go on like this for another year or two let alone trying to live my life for the next 60-70 years,” Joe wrote. “I’m not going to do anything yet but I have been seriously looking into euthanasia. I haven’t been able to have a real conversation with anybody about it, not even one of my 5 therapists or my wife, because I already know their reactions.”

Joe said he felt very rational about his decision but was anxious to talk about it “without being thrown into a straightjacket.”

Joe’s instinctive urge to talk with someone could be the key to working through this difficult time in his life, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Toronto. They analyzed a survey of 635 Canadians with chronic pain who had seriously thought about suicide to find out what qualities made those thoughts go away. Suicide “ideation” disappeared in about two-thirds of them.

Having a social support network – someone to talk to – was the key.

“The biggest factor in recovery from suicidal thoughts was having a confidant, defined as having at least one close relationship that provide the person in chronic pain a sense of emotional security and well-being,” said lead author Esme Fuller-Thomson, PhD, a Professor of Social Work, Medicine and Nursing and Director of the Institute for Life Course & Aging.

“Even when a wide range of other characteristics such as age, gender and mental health history were taken into account, those with a confidant had 87 percent higher odds of being in remission from suicidal thoughts compared to those with no close relationships."

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People with pain who stopped having suicidal thoughts were also significantly more likely to be older, female, white, better educated, and more likely to use prayer and spirituality to cope with daily problems.

Living in poverty and struggling to pay basic living expenses were barriers to recovery from suicide ideation. Poverty can severely limit access to healthcare, transportation and social activity.

"Clearly we need targeted efforts to decrease social isolation and loneliness among those experiencing chronic pain. These participants reported that pain prevented some or most of their activities, so they were particularly vulnerable to social isolation,” said Fuller-Thomson. “More awareness by the general public that mobility limitations associated with chronic pain can make it difficult for individuals to socialize outside the household, could encourage friends and family to visit and phone more and thereby decrease loneliness."

PNN’s recent survey of over 6,000 patients and healthcare providers shows how pervasive suicide is in the pain community. Nearly half the patients said they have considered suicide, while nearly one in four practitioners said they have lost a patient to suicide.

The good news is that public health agencies are finally starting to pay attention to these issues. Last week the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned doctors not to abruptly discontinue or rapidly taper patients on opioid pain medication because of the risk of suicide.

“(FDA) has received reports of serious harm in patients who are physically dependent on opioid pain medicines suddenly having these medicines discontinued or the dose rapidly decreased. These include serious withdrawal symptoms, uncontrolled pain, psychological distress, and suicide,” the agency said.

If you or a loved one are having suicidal thoughts, support is just a phone call away. The Suicide Prevention Lifeline has trained counselors on duty 24/7 at 1-800-273-TALK.

FDA Warns About Fast Opioid Tapers

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued an unusual warning Tuesday cautioning doctors not to abruptly discontinue or rapidly taper patients on opioid pain medication.

The agency said in a statement it had received reports of “serious harm in patients who are physically dependent on opioid pain medicines suddenly having these medicines discontinued or the dose rapidly decreased.” The harm includes withdrawal symptoms, uncontrolled pain, psychological distress and suicide.

The FDA gave no details on cases of patient harm but said it was tracking them and would require changes on opioid warning labels to help instruct physicians on how to safely decrease opioid doses.

“Rapid discontinuation can result in uncontrolled pain or withdrawal symptoms. In turn, these symptoms can lead patients to seek other sources of opioid pain medicines, which may be confused with drug-seeking for abuse. Patients may attempt to treat their pain or withdrawal symptoms with illicit opioids, such as heroin, and other substances,” the FDA said.

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In recent years, there have been an increasing number of anecdotal reports of pain patients committing suicide or turning to illegal drugs for pain relief. It is not clear why the FDA decided to act now, just days after the departure of former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb, MD.

In PNN’s recent survey of nearly 6,000 patients, over 80 percent said they had been taken off opioids or had their dose reduced. Nearly half said they had considered suicide because their pain is poorly treated and many were turning to other substances – both legal and illegal – for pain relief.

  • 11% obtained opioid medication from family, friends or black market

  • 26% used medical marijuana for pain relief

  • 20% used alcohol for pain relief

  • 20% used kratom for pain relief

  • 4% used illegal drugs (heroin, illicit fentanyl, etc.) for pain relief    

Last December, over a hundred healthcare professionals warned in a joint letter to the Department of Health and Human Services that forced opioid tapering has led to “an alarming increase in reports of patient suffering and suicides” and called for an urgent review of tapering policies at every level of healthcare.

“This is a large-scale humanitarian issue,” the letter warns. “New and grave risks now exist because of forced opioid tapering.” 

Federal agencies widely differ on opioid tapering recommendations. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend a "go slow" approach, with a "reasonable starting point" being 10% of the original dose per week. Patients who have been on opioids for a long time should have even slower tapers of 10% a month, according to the CDC.

The Department of Veterans Affairs recommends a taper of 5% to 20% every four weeks, although in some cases the VA suggests an initial rapid taper of 20% to 50% a day “if needed.”

In its warning, the FDA cautioned doctors that no standard opioid tapering schedule exists that is suitable for all patients.

When you and your patient have agreed to taper the dose of opioid analgesic, consider a variety of factors, including the dose of the drug, the duration of treatment, the type of pain being treated, and the physical and psychological attributes of the patient,” the FDA said. “Create a patient-specific plan to gradually taper the dose of the opioid and ensure ongoing monitoring and support, as needed, to avoid serious withdrawal symptoms, worsening of the patient’s pain, or psychological distress.”

The FDA urged patients and doctors to report side effects from opioid discontinuation and rapid tapers at druginfo@fda.hhs.gov or to call 855-543-DRUG (3784) and press 4.