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.

Heroin and Fentanyl Fueling Veteran Overdoses, Not Rx Opioids

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has taken a number of steps in recent years to reduce opioid prescribing for military veterans and their families. In 2015, the VA adopted the CDC opioid guideline before it was even finalized. Two years later, the agency adopted a clinical practice guideline for VA doctors that strongly recommends against prescribing opioids to patients for more than 90 days.

Both measures were intended to address “mounting concerns about prescription drug abuse and an overdose epidemic among veterans.”

But a new study has found that the “epidemic” of opioid overdoses among veterans is not fueled by prescriptions opioids – but by heroin, illicit fentanyl and other synthetic opioids obtained on the black market.

Researchers at the University of Michigan and VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System reported in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine that overdose deaths from all opioids increased by 65 percent for veterans from 2010 to 2016. But when then looked closer at prescription data on nearly 6,500 veterans who died, they found an unexpected trend.

"The percentage of veterans who had received an opioid pain prescription in the year before their opioid overdose death dropped substantially over this time period," says lead author Allison Lin, MD, an addiction psychiatrist at the VA Ann Arbor.

In 2010, half of the veterans who died of any opioid overdose had filled an opioid prescription in the three months before they died, and two-thirds had filled a prescription in the last year.

But by 2016, only a quarter of those who overdosed had filled an opioid prescription in the last three months, and 41 percent had done so in the past year.

At the same time, the death rate from heroin or from taking multiple opioids nearly quintupled, and the death rate from synthetic opioids such as fentanyl rose more than five-fold.

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“Interventions on opioid overdose prevention have often focused on those receiving opioid prescriptions; if we're only screening for risk in that population, this shows we will miss a lot," said Lin. "We really have to think about opioid overdose prevention and substance use disorder treatment more broadly, to determine where the greatest unmet need is, increase treatment access and accessibility, and improve outcomes."

The VA provides health services to 6 million veterans and their families. Over half the veterans being treated at VA facilities suffer from chronic pain, as well as other conditions that contribute to it, such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

A 2016 study of veterans found a strong link between heroin use and the non-medical use of prescription opioids. Having a long-term prescription for opioids to treat chronic pain was not found to be a significant risk factor for heroin use.

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.”

VA Study Could Lead to More Cuts in Opioid Prescribing

By Pat Anson, Editor

A new study by a prominent think tank could give further ammunition to the Department of Veterans Affairs to reduce access to opioid pain medication in its healthcare system.

Researchers at the RAND Corporation studied data from nearly 32,500 patients who were treated at VA facilities in 2007 and were identified as having an opioid use disorder. The goal was to identify “quality measures” that could help reduce the death rate of addicted patients.

The researchers found that deaths were much lower among patients who were not prescribed opioids or anxiety medications, those who received counseling, and patients who had regular visits with a VA physician. They estimate the number of deaths could be reduced by a third if all three quality measures were adopted. 

"This is a very large drop in mortality and we need to conduct more research to see if these findings hold up in other patient care settings," said Dr. Katherine Watkins, a physician scientist at RAND and lead author of the study published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence.

"But our initial findings suggest that these quality measures could go a long way toward improving patient outcomes among those who suffer from opioid addiction."

The findings suggest that a key to reducing mortality is to minimize the prescribing of opioid medication and benzodiazepines to veterans with opioid addiction. Benzodiazepines are a class of psychiatric medication used to treat anxiety disorders.

Because lower death rates were also associated with counseling and quarterly visits with a VA physician, researchers concluded that addicted patients benefit from making a connection with a caregiver, who can identify changes in their behavior and potential for relapse.

Surprisingly, patients in the study who were prescribed addiction treatment drugs such as Suboxone (buprenorphine) did not have lower death rates.

"We know from other research that medication-assisted therapy can help people stay off drugs, get jobs and lead more-productive lives," Watkins said. "But in this study, the treatment strategy was not associated with lower mortality."

The VA has already taken a number of measures to reduce opioid prescribing, including a new guideline that strongly recommends against prescribing opioids for chronic pain. VA physicians are also being urged not to prescribe opioids long-term to anyone under the age of 30. The guideline recommends exercise and psychological therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy as treatments for chronic pain, along with non-opioid drugs such as gabapentin.

“We’ve been working on this now for seven years and we’ve seen a 33 percent reduction in use of opioids among veterans, but we have a lot more to do. We have a lot we can learn,” Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin told a White House opioid commission earlier this month. "At the VA, my top priority is to reduce veteran suicides. And when we look at the overlap with substance abuse and opioid abuse, it’s really clear.”

According to a recent VA study, an average of 20 veterans die each day from suicide, a rate that is 21 percent higher than the civilian population.  Veterans also suffer from high rates of chronic pain, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

McCain Calls for New Study of Veteran Suicides

By Pat Anson, Editor

Arizona Senator John McCain has reintroduced legislation that calls for a comprehensive review of veteran suicides by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), including the role of opioids and other prescription drugs in their deaths.

Veterans suffer from high rates of chronic pain, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). According to a recent VA study, an average of 20 veterans die each day from suicide, a rate that is 21 percent higher than the civilian population.

“The tragedy of 20 veterans a day dying from suicide is a national scandal,” said McCain. “Combatting this epidemic will require the best research and understanding about the key causes of veteran suicide, including whether overmedication of drugs, such as opioid painkillers, is a contributing factor in suicide-related deaths.”

If passed, the Veterans Overmedication Prevention Act would authorize an independent study by the National Academies of Sciences of veterans who died of suicide, violent death or accidental death over the last five years – including what drugs they were taking at the time of their death.

The bill specifically calls for a listing of “any medications that carried a black box warning, were prescribed for off-label use, were psychotropic, or carried warnings that include suicidal ideation.”

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN

Dozens of medications prescribed to treat chronic pain, depression or PTSD are psychotropic – meaning they affect a patient’s mental state. They include tranquilizers, sedatives, antidepressants and anticonvulsants such as Lyrica (pregabalin), Cymbalta (duloxetine), Neurontin (gabapentin), Xanax (alprazolam), and Valium (diazepam). Many of the drugs also have warning labels that they “may cause suicidal thoughts or actions.”

McCain’s bill may bring new attention to something that is rarely discussed in the national debate over opioids and the overdose epidemic: many of the drugs prescribed "off label” as alternatives to opioids raise the risk of suicide and have other side effects.

“I almost committed suicide myself after being prescribed Lyrica and Cymbalta. I went from 190 pounds to 300 pounds, and had suicidal thoughts almost from the outset,” Alessio Ventura wrote in a recent guest column for PNN. “After the Lyrica and Cymbalta were stopped, I stayed on OxyContin and had bi-weekly testosterone shots. I lost all of the weight and the suicidal thoughts went away. It was a miracle.”

Vietnam veteran Ron Pence was pressured by VA doctors to take Cymbalta for his chronic arthritis.

“The VA is really pushing these drugs that I would not give to a dog. They are a lobotomy in a pill. I WILL DIE BEFORE TAKING THEM. They take away your ability to think, speak and make decisions; and come with side effects such as permanent blindness, kidney stones and suicide, even in non-depressed people with no mental problems,” Pence wrote in a guest column.

“Even trying to get off this drug under a doctor's care can end in death for some people. Besides that, it’s nothing more than a sugar pill for the pain.”

As PNN has reported, the VA recently adopted new clinical guidelines that strongly recommend against the prescribing of opioids for chronic pain. The guidelines recommend exercise and psychological therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy, along with non-opioid drugs such as Neurontin. No mention is made that Neurontin and other non-opioid drugs raise the risk of suicide, only that they “carry risk of harm.”

McCain’s bill would require the National Academies of Science to study the medications or illegal substances in the system of each veteran who died; whether multiple medications were prescribed by VA physicians or non-VA physicians; and the percentage of veterans who are receiving psychological therapy and its effectiveness versus other treatments.

Should CDC’s Opioid Guidelines Be Revised?

By Pat Anson, Editor

Suicidal patients. Illegal drug use. Hoarding of pain pills. Pharmacists refusing to fill prescriptions. Doctors worried about going to jail. Chronic pain going untreated.

Those are some of the many problems uncovered in a PNN survey of nearly 3,400 pain patients, doctors and healthcare providers, one year after the release of opioid prescribing guidelines by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (see "Survey Finds CDC Opioid Guidelines Harming Patients"). The guidelines were meant to be voluntary and are only intended for primary care doctors, but they're being widely implemented throughout the U.S. healthcare system – often with negative consequences for the patients they were intended to help.

Over 70 percent of patients say doctors have either reduced or stopped their opioid medication. Eight out of ten say their pain and quality of life are worse. Nearly half are having suicidal thoughts and some are hoarding opioids or turning to the black market for pain relief.

And hardly anyone believes the guideline has been successful in reducing opioid abuse and overdoses.

“This is astounding, but not surprising,” says Lynn Webster, MD, a leading expert in pain management and a longtime critic of the CDC guideline. “It may be time for the CDC to consider inviting the pain community to help revise the guideline to more align with a public health policy that finds a better balance of avoiding opioid related problems, while also allowing opioids to be used in a responsible way.  

“The CDC should not have issued the guideline without a plan to measure its possible benefits and unintended consequences.”

Does the CDC even have such a plan? PNN asked the agency if one exists and also for a comment on the survey findings. We have yet to get a response. 

The founder and Executive Director of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP), an anti-opioid group that helped draft the guidelines, also declined to comment on the survey findings.

“I’m not going to want to comment either way,” said Andrew Kolodny, MD, before launching into a defense of the guideline.

“Since the CDC guideline came out, the bad news on opioids for chronic pain continues to increase. The evidence keeps getting stronger and stronger that opioids are lousy drugs for most people with chronic pain,” said Kolodny, who is Co-Director of the Opioid Policy Research Collaborative at Brandeis University.

“Opioids for chronic pain should be a rare treatment. And unfortunately the practice is widespread. Millions of people like your readers are victims of this aggressive prescribing,” he told PNN.

CDC Pledged to Revise Guideline if Needed

The closing words of the CDC guideline say the agency is “committed” to revising it if evidence is found that it's not helping patients or doctors.

“CDC will revisit this guideline as new evidence becomes available,” the agency pledged last year. “CDC is committed to evaluating the guideline to identify the impact of the recommendations on clinician and patient outcomes, both intended and unintended, and revising the recommendations in future updates when warranted.”

Some critics are skeptical that CDC has any intention to revise the guideline.

“I am not aware of any actions which would demonstrate that the CDC is actually open to revising their guideline, especially when they knew of the problems in advance of its release,” said Stephen Ziegler, PhD, a Professor Emeritus of Public Policy at Indiana University-Purdue University.

Instead of revising, did they instead opt to hire a PR firm? The negative outcomes, while unintended, were nevertheless foreseeable.”

Ziegler is referring to a contract the CDC signed last year with PRR – a Seattle-based public relations firm – to provide research and analysis for the agency. The research wasn’t focused on the “intended and unintended” impact of the guidelines, but on why they were received so poorly in the pain community.   

“They’ve heard a lot of outrage about this,” a source at PRR told us. “And so they hired our firm to gauge those perceptions and talk to people and come back to them with an analysis of what those perceptions are.”

Lynn Webster thinks the CDC needs to do more than hire a public relations consultant.

“I think it is time for Congress to ask the CDC to provide them a detailed report on the impact the opioid prescribing guideline has had on access to appropriate pain management, quality of care for people in pain, access to insurance coverage of alternative and complementary therapies recommended by the guideline, impact on the number of opioid related overdoses, rate of change reported in treatment for opioid use disorder, and change in possible suicide rate with people in pain due to inadequately treated pain,” said Webster, a former President of the American Academy of Pain Medicine.

Voluntary Recommendations Become Mandatory

Some believe the problem isn’t so much the wording of the guideline as the way it is being implemented by physicians, states, insurers and other federal agencies like the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). They’ve turned the CDC’s voluntary recommendations for primary care doctors into mandatory rules that all prescribers have to follow. 

“I've said about both the CDC guideline and the Washington state guidelines from years ago, that what they actually say isn't so bad. I can live with most of it. The problem is that people take what is there and turn it into something it shouldn't be,” said Bob Twillman, PhD, Executive Director of the Academy of Integrative Pain Management.

“With respect to the CDC guideline, the problem is that everyone is trying to turn it into laws, rules, and criteria for prior authorization for payment, and those things absolutely shouldn't be done. If everyone treated it as what it is -- a series of expert-drafted suggestions -- we'd be doing OK. It might even have helped a lot of people.”

Millions of veterans and Medicare beneficiaries are about to learn what Twillman means about the guideline being turned “into something it shouldn’t be.”  

CMS is planning to adopt new rules to “better align” its policies with the CDC’s.  Medicare’s “Opioid Misuse Strategy” not only makes the guidelines mandatory, it allows insurance companies to take punitive action against doctors, pharmacists and patients who don’t follow them.

The VA and Pentagon have also released new guidelines that take the CDC’s recommendations a big step further. They strongly recommend against prescribing opioids long-term to anyone under the age of 30, and urge VA and military doctors to taper or discontinue opioids for any patients currently receiving high doses.

“You should take a look at the VA guideline that just came out, if you don’t like the CDC guideline,” says Andrew Kolodny. “The VA guideline is even stronger. It says don’t give opioids. Opioids are not preferred. Don’t do it.”

Lost in the shuffle of all these new rules and regulations is the voice of pain patients. Many who responded to our survey are fearful of becoming disabled or bedridden if opioids are taken away from them. And some believe the government has an ulterior motive.

“This is a silent genocide aimed squarely at Baby Boomers. An expedited way to avoid paying Social Security benefits to those who are approaching retirement or are receiving benefits. I am ashamed of our country,” wrote one patient.

“Completely wrong approach which will, I believe, result in more addiction as patients experiencing intolerable suffering are forced to look outside the medical system for relief,” said another.

“This is going to backfire on the CDC, Medicare, Medicaid, etc. The CDC is punishing every single person on pain medications,” wrote another patient. “People will die because of this, but they don't seem to care about any of the consequences of these guidelines. Being in pain is a terrible thing, I know from experience. I wouldn't even be able to work if it weren't for my pain medication. This is all very stressing, and I only see bad results coming out of this.”

The online survey of 3,108 pain patients, 43 doctors and 235 other healthcare providers was conducted between February 15 and March 11 by Pain News Network and the International Pain Foundation (iPain).

To see the complete survey results, click here.

Waiting for Effective Pain Care at the VA

By Steve Pitkin, Guest Columnist

As a veteran of Vietnam and as a chronic pain sufferer, I am so glad that Pain News Network has been a consistent voice for 100 million Americans who are basically being told to "go off and die somewhere" by the DEA, CDC and other government agencies who are supposed to be protecting us.

I started on morphine, clonazepam and temazepam in 2001, and was constantly monitored by a team of psychiatrists, psychologists and my primary care physician at the VA Medical Center in West Palm Beach, Florida. I did not get "high" from the treatment, but it gave me a quality of life that I could not have with other medications.

I was in a car wreck after I retired from the military in 1997. In September of that year, I was taking my youngest daughter to an orthodontist appointment when our vehicle was hit by a truck right after a rain storm.

The crash seriously injured my daughter, who was clinically dead for over 6 minutes before being brought back to life by a helicopter rescue team. She still suffers from a traumatic brain injury, as well as pain issues herself.

The accident worsened the already extensive injuries to my cervical spine and lower back area. I started to lose strength in both arms, and a civilian doctor attempted an ulnar nerve release. That worked for about a week, before the pain and numbness came back.

STEVE PITKIN

STEVE PITKIN

I eventually moved to Montana and was treated by a new primary care physician at the VA clinic in Missoula. He and his nursing team were not very helpful, so I asked to be transferred to a new doctor last year.

I was called back to the clinic and was introduced to my new physician. He took one look at my medical records and said, “The amount of painkillers you are on is borderline medical malpractice and we're going to have to get you off of them as soon as possible."

I nearly hit the roof when he said that. I had three failed right knee procedures, my cervical and spinal pain had grown worse, and here he's telling me that I was a victim of too many painkillers?

I have been pretty much bedridden since my dosage of morphine and the other medications were reduced. I have also been told I need to have both knees and both shoulders replaced. However, I was refused surgery on my neck by a neurologist who said, “If I were to operate on you, the amount of painkillers you’d need would kill you. You need to get off the morphine and benzodiazepines first, then come see me."

I told the neurosurgeon that I was an ex-Green Beret medic and had already gone through surgery several times with no serious side effects. But I was talking to a blank wall.

I went to see another primary care physician about the problems I was having with the lower dosage. He laughed at me when I asked if he could raise the dose. “You signed this paper saying you agreed to it," he said while waving the paper at me.

I didn't have any choice in the matter. I was told either to sign it or be cut off altogether.

I have written to both the House and the Senate Veterans Affairs Committees and was told there was nothing they could do to help me. When I found out that Montana Sen. John Tester was on the Senate Committee that helped the VA pass these measures, I was livid and told him so.

I even emailed President Obama and received a reply from him, saying something to the effect that it was important to keep heroin off the streets and to stop illegal sales of prescription pain meds.

There’s no doubt about that, but we who need those medications are being lumped into the same pile with drug abusers. The veteran suicide rate is estimated 20 a day and many vets, as well as civilian chronic pain patients, have been forced into buying illegal drugs and are dying from them.

I have always been a patriotic American and didn't hesitate to volunteer for the draft when I was 18. But if I knew that the government I served for so long would declare me an enemy, I think I never would have gone into the military. If not for my strong faith as a Christian, I would have killed myself long before writing this.

I can only hope that President Trump realizes that waiting in line for healthcare is not the only problem with the VA, and that wars injure and maim people for life.

Was it all really for nothing?

Steven Pitkin lives in Montana.

Pain News Network invites other readers to share their stories with us.  Send them to:  editor@PainNewsNetwork.org

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

Do Opioids Raise or Lower Risk of Suicide?

By Pat Anson, Editor

Robert Rose has little doubt what the fallout will be from tougher guidelines for opioid pain medication being adopted by the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs. The 50-year old Marine Corps veteran calls the guidelines a “death sentence” for thousands of sick and wounded veterans like himself.

“Suicides are going to increase. No doubt about it. Alcoholism is going to increase. Veterans dying from accidental overdoses are going to increase. Deaths caused by veterans turning to street drugs are going to increase,” says Rose.

The VA and the Pentagon released the new opioid guidelines for veterans and active duty service members last month. (See “Tougher Opioid Guidelines for U.S. Military and Veterans”). It urges VA and military doctors to taper or discontinue opioids for patients on high doses, and strongly recommends that no opioids be prescribed for chronic pain patients under the age of 30.

Some VA doctors didn’t wait for the new guideline to be released. Rose, who suffers from chronic back pain due to service related injuries, was on a relatively high dose of morphine for 15 years before he was abruptly taken off opioid medication by his doctor last December.

Rose is in so much pain now that he rarely leaves the house.

“People cannot live in the amount of pain that I’m doing. They can’t do it. It’s just unimaginable to think that people can survive at this level for any length of time and be denied pain care,” Rose told PNN.

“Many, many, many days I was asking God to take me home because I couldn’t deal with the pain anymore.”

robert rose

robert rose

Suicidal thoughts are not uncommon in the veteran community. Over half the veterans being treated at VA facilities suffer from chronic pain, as well as high rates of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.  A recent study by the VA estimated that 20 veterans killed themselves each day in 2014.

Some have associated the high rate of suicide with opioid pain medication. The new VA guideline recommends that patients be closely monitored for suicide risk during opioid therapy, especially if they have a history of depression or bipolar disorder.

But there is no mention in the 192-page guideline that undertreated or untreated pain can also be a risk for suicide. The guideline is actually dismissive of suicide risk in patients being weaned off opioids:

“Some patients on LOT (long term opioid therapy) who suffer from chronic pain and co-occurring OUD (opioid use disorder), depression, and/or personality disorders may threaten suicide when providers recommend discontinuation of opioids. However, continuing LOT to ‘prevent suicide’ in someone with chronic pain is not recommended as an appropriate response if suicide risk is high or increases.”

Do Opioids Raise Risk of Suicide?

Are suicidal patients better off without opioids, as the guideline suggests?

“When I’m doing clinical work, that’s a question that I face on almost a daily basis,” says Mark Edlund, MD, a Utah psychiatrist who treats patients with chronic pain, mental health and substance abuse problems. “If people are being prescribed opioids, does that increase their risk for suicide?”

Edlund co-authored a recent study published in the American Journal of Public Health, which found that the number of suicides involving opioids more than doubled from 1999 to 2014, a period when opioid prescribing sharply increased.     

“There’s a good theoretical reason to think they are linked. Opioids can easily cause death. We know that opioid prescriptions have been going up,” says Edlund. “To me the results make complete sense. And they fit within a model you could make of increased access to opioids would increase suicide.”

Edlund, who is a research scientist with RTI International, co-authored the study with Jennifer Braden, MD, and Mark Sullivan, MD, both researchers at the University of Washington. Sullivan is a longtime critic of opioid prescribing practices and a board member of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP), an anti-opioid activist group.

Edlund is not a member of PROP, but has participated in some PROP research studies and says he is "largely in agreement" with the group's goals.

While his study found an association between opioid medication and suicides, Edlund admits it failed to prove causation – definitive proof that opioids contribute to suicidal thoughts or actions. In fact, recent research indicates that less than 5 percent of the attempted suicides in the U.S. involve opioids.  

“If you really wanted to get into causality, that would be very difficult to assess,” he said.  “I think there are competing explanations. What may be true for one person may not be true for another. Maybe for some people opioids are not helping with their pain and they’re worsening depression. But on the other hand, I’m sure there are some people that are using opioids and it improves their functioning and decreasing their pain. That part is hard to disentangle.”

The United States has seen a disturbing increase in suicides for over a decade. In 2014, nearly 43,000 Americans committed suicide, over twice the number of deaths linked to accidental opioid overdoses.

Most often suicides are blamed on depression, mental illness, financial problems, or drug and alcohol abuse. No statistics are kept on how many Americans kill themselves due to untreated or poorly treated pain, but there are a growing number of anecdotal reports of patients killing themselves after having their opioids reduced or eliminated (see “Chronic Pain Patient Abandoned by Doctor Dies”).

“I can't go on like this,” Bianca recently wrote to PNN. “They've cut my medicine to less than half of what I was taking.  I also have had suicidal thoughts, but pray to God that I don't.”

“I think of killing myself every day since… my doctors stopped prescribing (opioids). Why have they not been looking at this very issue, which is pain?” asked Tom.

“I will kill myself if they take me off it. Barely helps my pain anyways. The new anti-opiate laws by the government will cause my death,” wrote another pain patient. “I am certain many others will commit suicide.”

“I have suicidal thoughts every day since being taken off opioids. Life was bad before, now it is hell,” said Thomas. “Let’s place an ice pick in these doctors’ spines and see how long they last 24 hours per day, seven days a week. These ivory tower idiots would have a quick change of mind.”

Those are the patients that Mark Edlund worries about.

“That’s the personal clinical issue that I wrestle with. Which of those patients that I see will the opioid increase risk of suicide or decrease it? If it’s a legitimate pain patient who benefits from opioids, then yeah, it’s going to decrease the risk,” he said.

Do Opioids Lower Risk of Suicide?

Researchers in Israel recently found that very low doses of an opioid actually reduce suicidal thoughts. Patients in four Israeli hospitals – most of whom had a history of suicide attempts – had a significant decline in suicidal ideation after being given tiny doses of buprenorphine (Suboxone), a medication widely used to treat addiction.

“The study could not prove that opioids treat mental pain—it wasn’t designed to do so—but it did show that buprenorphine decreases suicidal ideation.  Perhaps the study’s most important contribution is its implication that treatments that help us withstand mental pain may prevent suicide,” psychiatrist Anne Skomorowsky wrote in Scientific American.

“(The) study provides a rationale for thinking about opioids in a new way. More than that, it suggests that interventions that increase our capacity to tolerate mental anguish may have a powerful role in suicide prevention.”

Suicide is a topic that is rarely addressed in the national debate over the so-called opioid epidemic. But as efforts continue to restrict or even eliminate opioid prescribing, patients like Robert Rose warn that we could be exchanging one epidemic for another.

“Them taking the pain meds away (from me) was God kicking me in the ass and telling me to get back into the world of the living. Now I have something to fight for,” says Rose, who bombards politicians, government officials and regulators with a steady stream of emails warning of the harm opioid guidelines are causing.

“Unfortunately since the VA adopted the CDC guidelines this is exactly what many veterans have done… turned to suicide. And with Medicare/Medicaid considering adopting the same policies, those suicides, your families, friends and neighbors, will spill over into the civilian populace with staggering implications for many,” Rose said in a recent email.

“Instead of tens of thousands of veterans being affected, it’s going to be tens of millions. And the loss of life is going to be devastating to families, communities and to the workforce.” 

Tougher Opioid Guidelines for U.S. Military and Veterans

By Pat Anson, Editor

It’s going to be even harder for U.S. military service members and veterans – especially younger ones -- to obtain opioid pain medication.

The Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense have released a new clinical practice guideline for VA and military doctors that strongly recommends against prescribing opioids for long-term chronic pain – pain that lasts longer than 90 days.

The new guideline is even more stringent than the one released last year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

It specifically recommends against long-term opioid therapy for patients under the age of 30.  And it urges VA and military doctors to taper or discontinue opioids for patients currently receiving high doses.

The 192-page guideline (which you can download by clicking here) is careful to note that the recommendations are voluntary and “not intended as a standard of care” that physicians are required to follow.

But critics worry they will be implemented and rigidly followed by military and VA doctors, just as the CDC guidelines were by many civilian doctors.

“I am concerned that many of these veterans with moderate to severe pain who may be well-maintained on long-term opioid therapy as part of a multidisciplinary approach or whom have already tried non-pharmacological and non-opioid therapies and found them insufficient will be tapered off their medication for no good reason except that their physicians will be fearful to run afoul of these new guidelines,” says Cindy Steinberg, National Director of Policy and Advocacy for the U.S. Pain Foundation, a patient advocacy group.

Although much of the research and clinical evidence used to support the new guideline was considered “low or very low” quality, a panel of experts found “mounting evidence” that the risk of harm from opioids -- such as addiction and overdose – “far outweighed the potential benefits.”

“There is a lack of high-quality evidence that LOT (long term opioid therapy) improves pain, function, and/or quality of life. The literature review conducted for this CPG (clinical practice guideline) identified no studies evaluating the effectiveness of LOT for outcomes lasting longer than 16 weeks. Given the lack of evidence showing sustained functional benefit of LOT and moderate evidence outlining harms, non-opioid treatments are preferred for chronic pain.”

The panel of experts was comprised of a diverse group of doctors, nurses and pharmacists within the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs, including specialists in pain management and addiction treatment. 

“We recommend against initiation of long-term opioid therapy for chronic pain,” reads the first of 18 recommendations of the expert panel, which said that only “a rare subset of individuals” should be prescribed opioids long term.

Instead of opioids, the panel recommends exercises such as yoga and psychological therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy to treat chronic pain, along with non-opioid drugs such as gabapentin (Neurontin).

“In light of the low harms associated with exercise and psychological therapies when compared with LOT these treatments are preferred over LOT, and should be offered to all patients with chronic pain including those currently receiving LOT.”

Another strong recommendation of the panel is that opioids not be prescribed long-term to anyone under the age of 30, because of the damage opioids can cause to developing brains. 

“Some may interpret the recommendation to limit opioid use by age as arbitrary and potentially discriminatory when taken out of context; however, there is good neurophysiologic rationale explaining the relationship between age and OUD (opioid use disorder) and overdose.”

Of the seven studies used to support this claim, four were rated as “fair quality” and three were considered “poor quality.”

“That strikes me as an extremely weak evidence base for such a sweeping recommendation,” said Steinberg. “There is no mention of severity of pain condition which is extremely relevant in this population, many of whom sustained devastating and gruesome battlefield injuries such as blown off limbs.”

The panel recommends alternatives to opioids for mild-to-moderate acute pain. If opioids are prescribed temporarily for acute short-term pain, immediate release opioids are preferred.

Risk of Suicide Discounted

Pain is a serious problem for both active duty service members and veterans. A study found that nearly half the service members returning from Afghanistan have chronic pain and 15 percent reported using opioids – rates much higher than the civilian population.

The incidence of pain is even higher among veterans being treated at VA facilities. Over half suffer from chronic pain, as well as other conditions that contribute to it, such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Even more alarming is a recent VA study that found an average of 22 veterans committing suicide each day.

The new guideline recommends that patients be monitored for suicide risk before and during opioid therapy, but curiously there is no mention that undertreated or untreated pain is also a risk for suicide. For patients being tapered or taken off opioids, doctors are advised not to take a threat of suicide too seriously.

“Some patients on LOT who suffer from chronic pain and co-occurring OUD, depression, and/or personality disorders may threaten suicide when providers recommend discontinuation of opioids. However, continuing LOT to ‘prevent suicide’ in someone with chronic pain is not recommended as an appropriate response if suicide risk is high or increases. In such cases, it is essential to involve behavioral health to assess, monitor, and treat a patient who becomes destabilized as a result of a medically appropriate decision to taper or cease LOT.”

Many patients could find themselves being tapered or taken off opioids if the guideline is taken literally by their doctors. The expert panel strongly recommends against opioid doses greater than a 90 mg morphine equivalent (MME) daily dose and urges caution for doses as low as 20 MME. 

“This again fails to recognize that patients differ widely in severity of pain, individual response to medication, body size and weight and tolerance for pain,” says Steinberg.

“I worry that, as we have seen with the CDC guidelines, clinicians will begin tapering patients who may be well-maintained on stable does of medication for fear of running afoul of sanctioned limitations rather than being guided by what is best for their patients. These limitations are in direct conflict with FDA approved labeling which is based on safety and efficacy trials and does not include dose thresholds.”

The VA and Department of Defense opioid guideline will affect millions of service members, veterans and their families. Nearly 1.5 million Americans currently serve in the armed forces and over 800,000 in the National Guard and Reserves.  The Veterans Administration provides health services to another 6 million veterans and their families.

The guideline is the second major initiative by the federal government so far this year aimed at reducing opioid prescribing. As Pain News Network has reported, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has announced plans to fully implement the CDC’s opioid prescribing guidelines.

CMS is taking those voluntary guidelines a step further by mandating them as official Medicare policy and taking punitive action against doctors and patients who don’t follow them. CMS provides health insurance to about 54 million Americans through Medicare and nearly 70 million through Medicaid.

Veterans More Likely to Have Chronic Pain

By Pat Anson, Editor

Nearly one out of ten U.S. military veterans suffers from chronic severe pain, according to an extensive new survey that found the prevalence of pain higher in veterans than nonveterans, particularly in veterans who served during recent armed conflicts.

The survey by the National Institutes of Health provides the first national estimate of severe pain in both veterans and nonveterans.

The prevalence of severe pain – defined as pain that occurs "most days" or "every day" and bothers the individual "a lot" – was 9.1% for veterans and 6.4% for nonveterans.

“Our analysis showed that veterans were about 40 percent more likely to experience severe pain than nonveterans,” said Richard Nahin, PhD, lead author of the analysis.

“Younger veterans were substantially more likely to report suffering from severe pain than nonveterans, even after controlling for underlying demographic characteristics. These findings suggest that more attention should be paid to helping veterans manage the impact of severe pain and related disability on daily activities.”

The study is based on data from a survey of over 67,000 adults (6,647 veterans and 61,049 nonveterans) who responded to questions about the persistence and intensity of their pain. The vast majority of veterans were men (92%), while most of the nonveterans were women (56%). The survey did not identify any specific aspects of military service, including branch of the armed forces, years of service, or whether the veteran served in a combat role.

More veterans (65%) than nonveterans (56%) reported having some type of pain in the previous three months.  They were also more likely to have severe pain from back pain, joint pain, migraine, neck pain, sciatica and jaw pain.

Younger veterans (8%) were substantially more likely to suffer from severe pain than nonveterans (3%) of similar ages.

“These findings show that we still have much more to do to help our veterans who are suffering from pain,” said Josephine Briggs, MD, director of the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH). “This new knowledge can help inform effective health care strategies for veterans of all ages. More research is needed to generate additional evidence-based options for veterans managing pain.”

Veterans Complain About VA Pain Care

The survey adds to the growing body of evidence that military veterans are more likely to suffer from physical and mental health issues, and that their problems are not being adequately addressed by the Veterans Administration, which provides health services to 6 million veterans and their families. According to a recent VA study, an average of 22 veterans commit suicide each day.

One of them was Peter Kaisen. In August, the 76-year old Navy veteran committed suicide outside a VA Medical Center in Northport, New York.  Kaisen’s widow told Newsday that her husband had chronic back pain, but VA doctors had told him there was nothing more they could do to ease his suffering.

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 depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

In recent months, dozens of veterans have complained to Pain News Network that their treatment grew worse after the VA adopted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s opioid prescribing guidelines, which discourage doctors from prescribing opioids for chronic pain.

“I am a Vietnam era veteran who has had testicular cancer, prostate cancer, hip joint cancer, and have been living with an inoperable spinal cord tumor,” wrote Tommy Garrett. “I cannot get the VA to prescribe OxyContin that civilian doctors have had me on for 17 years.”

“I received epidurals for 10 years and also I received pain medication for 6 years. The VA quit giving me epidurals and also took me off Vicodin,” said Mitch Kepner. “(Before) I was active and now I just lay around and do nothing wishing I was dead. I have no life, everything I do is a struggle. I don't want pity. I don't want compassion. I don't want (anything) from anybody. I just want Vicodin back so I can function.”

After several years of taking morphine to relieve pain from chronic arthritis, Vietnam veteran Ron Pence had his dosage cut in half by VA doctors – who want him to take Cymbalta, a non-opioid originally developed to treat anxiety. After reading about Cymbalta's side effects, Pence refused to take it.

“Why start something like that when what I was taking had no side effects for me and was working fine? I am sure the pills they are pushing will end in a lot more deaths and terrible disabilities and suffering,” wrote Pence in a PNN guest column.

“We are in one of the most advanced countries in the world medically, yet the doctors and politicians will not use that knowledge to ease pain and suffering. We have to find a solution.”