The Power of the Pen

By Michael Emelio, Guest Columnist

It's my hope that this column can serve as a powerful example of the harm that can be caused when people are denied adequate pain management. And in so, I pray that it also serves as a lesson to doctors and is something that our lawmakers, CDC and DEA will take a moment to seriously consider.

To understand the full magnitude of the damage that's been caused, I implore you to read a guest column I wrote last year, in which I described how the opioid medication I take for intractable back pain was rapidly tapered to a lower dose, leaving me bedridden and disabled.

It's high time that the harm being inflicted on me and other innocent victims of the opioid crisis is both acknowledged and stopped!

While I can totally sympathize with a doctor's fear of repercussions from the DEA, there comes a point where it's no longer a valid or acceptable excuse. One of those points is when a doctor, with no medically valid reason, refuses to sufficiently treat a person's pain and it results in harm to that patient.

And when a doctor refuses to prescribe a reasonable opioid dose (especially one that is within the CDC opioid guideline) and it causes a patient's condition to significantly worsen, how are they not responsible for that harm?

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Speaking with other patients, I've been hearing a familiar story quite a bit lately. So much in fact, that it appears to be becoming an epidemic. Doctors with no medically valid reason are either failing or refusing to prescribe even within the CDC’s 90 MME guideline, while using the same old "well the DEA threatens to take our licenses away" excuse. 

Not only is it getting old, but it's getting people hurt and worse. And when I say that excuse is killing me, I may just mean literally!

Since the tapering started, I've gained 55 pounds and my blood sugar and cholesterol have soared to alarming rates. So in addition to all the things I can no longer do and my pain and suffering increasing, I'm now at risk of both heart disease and diabetes. Irrefutably, this is a direct result of being bedridden 24 hours a day due to the med cuts.

But it doesn't stop there. Adding insult to injury, these med cuts are also robbing me of the only chance I have to improve my condition.

Surgery Not An Option

It cannot be emphasized enough that I've seen several highly-acclaimed surgeons, who are absolutely unanimous in what options I have. They've all said the same thing: Surgery is not an option for me and due to the nature of my condition I should avoid any invasive procedures as they can make my pain worse. This includes spinal injections, radiofrequency ablation, spinal cord stimulators and pain pumps, to name a few.

They've all said that the only viable options I have left are pain meds and physical therapy. The latter is essential because “mobility is crucial to help reduce the pain and improve function.” And to slow my rate of deterioration, I should do “as much physical therapy as possible." 

So by denying me the ability to complete physical therapy due to his forced med cuts, my doctor is not only robbing me of my only chance for improvement, he is directly causing my condition to worsen at an accelerated rate. Despite explaining all of this to him, my doctor informs me that he still plans on reducing my meds even further!

On what planet does this make any sense whatsoever? When you consider all the aspects of my condition and the damage the previous met cuts have already caused, how can this be helpful in any way, yet be a necessary or even a reasonable course of action?

Especially when I'm only at 60 MME, which is considerably less than the CDC's 90 MME guideline. Furthermore, I've been a patient of his for over a year and a half and have proven to take my medications responsibly the entire time, as well as the previous 18 years I've been in pain management.

Because of the CDC guideline and the fear instilled by the DEA, my doctor is covering his ass and slowly killing me.
— Micahel Emelio

Think about this for a minute. I have a medical need for pain meds because of an incurable condition that is causing such severe intractable pain that I'm bedridden to the point that I struggle to care for myself properly. It’s also a condition where surgery and invasive procedures are not an option, all other methods and medications have failed, and the only chance for improvement is through physical therapy. Then add the fact that my health is in a serious state of decline as a direct result of the med cuts, and he still wants to cut them even more?

Unless you're in this boat yourself, you can't fathom the level of stress this causes. I'm literally afraid I may have a heart attack from it.

You have to understand the impact that just one more med cut would have on me. I live alone, have no one to help me, and with the dose I'm currently at, I'm already struggling most days just to microwave a TV dinner, yet alone clean my house or even care for myself properly. If he cuts my meds any further, the effect it will have on my life will be devastating.

As I sat in my car outside his office, the only thing I could think about was that if he reduces my meds any further, not only will my pain be unbearable, but I won't even be able to care for myself anymore. Being alone and poor, I only see two options at that point: street drugs or suicide. 

Make no mistake. That is the hand that is being forced on people when intractable pain is not treated!

Never in a million years could I have imagined being in this position. But sadly, this is my reality. And the truly astonishing part of it all is that he could stop all this damage and immensely change my life for the better tomorrow, simply by prescribing 2 more tablets a day, which would still be within the CDC guideline.

But no! Because of the CDC guideline and the fear instilled by the DEA, my doctor is covering his ass and slowly killing me. It's both staggering and terrifying knowing how much control he has over my life with just the swipe of his pen.

Which brings me to an interesting point. In medical school they teach about a thing they call the "power of the pen." It means to make sure that what they prescribe doesn't cause harm to the patient. I just wish my doctor realized that the power of the pen works both ways!

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Michael Emelio lives in Florida. Michael lives with severe degenerative disc disease, scoliosis and fibromyalgia. He has safely used opioid medication since 2001.

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.

Praying for a Miracle

By Stephanie King, Guest Columnist

Up until May of 2010, everything was pretty easy going as far as my health was concerned. I was a happily married 22-year old and mother of a sweet one-year old boy. Then one fateful afternoon all of that changed.

There was a bad storm that day but we had to pay bills. My family and I ended up hydroplaning off the road and crashing into trees.

Luckily, our son was unharmed and my husband, while it was bad, suffered nothing worse than a broken leg.

I had the worst of the injuries and needed surgery. I broke my right foot in three places and my back in five. One of those breaks was a compression burst fracture, which means that my vertebrae basically exploded from pressure. 

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Unfortunately, I also developed MRSA, a severe and dangerous bacterial infection. This meant packing the open, oozing wounds every day. Instead of getting better, the infection spread through my back and within a couple of months turned into sepsis. Two more surgeries and six months later, I was finally infection free.

A few years later, my pain was increasing due to degenerative disc disease and arthropathy, so my pain specialist started pushing epidural steroid injections. I was already on fentanyl and MS Contin, so I figured I would give it a shot. This would be the biggest mistake of my life.

I ended up having about ten injections. The last one caused extreme levels of pain and my body felt strange that night. I refused to get any more after that. 

Not long afterwards, I began developing neurological pain that I wasn't used to. Sometimes it felt like warm water running down my legs. Sometimes it was stabbing and biting sensations. Sometimes it felt like my bones were snapping. I didn't make the connection between the epidural and the nerve pain. I assumed it was a pinched nerve, because my back was so messed up. 

STEPHANIE KING

STEPHANIE KING

Then in the fall of 2016, my inner calves began to go numb. The numbness rapidly spread up my legs and into my groin. My GP admitted me into the hospital and I had an MRI done.

That day I heard the words I will never forget, the words that changed my life forever: Adhesive Arachnoiditis.

It was explained to me that this is a disease where scar tissue is engulfing spinal nerves, blocking the flow of spinal cord fluid because of inflammation of the arachnoid lining around the nerves.

The more I learned about Arachnoiditis, the more I realized I was doomed to a lifetime of unrelenting pain, a level of pain some doctors have compared to that of bone cancer. I learned of the possibility of paralysis. I learned how there is no cure, just medication to try to manage the disease symptoms and slow down its spread.

I was devastated but kept pushing on, ignoring the pain as much as possible.

Just over a year later, I learned something else. My birth control had failed. I was pregnant with our daughter. My pain specialist immediately dropped me. My obstetrician panicked and tried to get me in with another pain management doctor due to fear of a miscarriage.

I kept hearing how no one would see someone who was pregnant and not already an established patient at their practice. I was referred to a neurologist, but he told my doctor that there was nothing that he could give me that would be safe during pregnancy.

During my pregnancy, the Arachnoiditis symptoms increased tenfold. The burning in my feet and hands became unbearable. I'm one of the "lucky" Arachnoiditis patients who has scar tissue far enough up their spine to effect my arms and hands as well. I began jerking uncontrollably and developed tremors. I spent most of my pregnancy crying and screaming.

We have a beautiful daughter now! She is so sweet and smart! Unfortunately, my symptoms never subsided. I still don't have a pain management doctor. No pain specialist will see me.

I fear I was red flagged for doctor shopping, even though it was just my obstetrician trying to get me treatment. I have finally started seeing a neurologist but until he has reviewed all of my MRIs, no treatment will be given. I won't see him again for another month.

I live in never-ending pain. I rely on family a lot to help care for my children while my husband works. I have come to realize I have no good options at this point. I can continue on in pain and being a total burden to my family, just becoming more burdensome over time.

I could turn to marijuana but it is illegal in my state. My children could be taken away and I could go to prison. I could commit suicide but that would scar my children and further hurt the rest of my family. I am stuck.   

There are times I pray for death. I pray for the body I once had. I pray I could be the mother and wife I once was. I pray for anything to make it stop, even for just a little while. I pray for a miracle.

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Stephanie King lives in Alabama.

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

The information in this column 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.

Stem Cell Therapy for Lower Back Pain Moves Closer

By A. Rahman Ford, PNN Columnist

There’s good news on the horizon for those who suffer from lower back pain due to disc degeneration.

Mesoblast, an Australian biotech company, has partnered with Grunenthal, a large German pharmaceutical company, to commercialize an investigational stem cell product called MPC-06-ID -- a stem cell formula comprised of mesenchymal cells derived from the bone marrow of healthy volunteers. Mesoblast could receive up to $1 billion from Grunenthal if the treatment is successful.

MPC-06-ID is currently in a Phase III placebo-controlled trial in the U.S. In the trial, millions of stem cells grown in a laboratory are injected into the patients’ degenerated discs with the goal of reducing inflammation and causing the discs to regenerate.

In previous trials, 47% of those who received the injection had a significant reduction in pain 12 months later. The results persisted for three years.

The estimated study completion date for the Phase III trial is March 2021. So, unfortunately, there is a bit of a wait. But Mesoblast is hopeful the study findings will result in FDA approval.

The company is also studying a stem cell product for chronic lower back pain. More on Mesoblast’s products and how they treat back pain can be found here.

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What does this mean? First and foremost, it’s great news for people suffering from back pain. This is a population that is woefully underserved by conventional medicine. Limited options include analgesics like opioids, which are increasingly difficult to obtain, and spinal surgery that is costly, often ineffective and can even exacerbate the problem. I have previously written about these issues here.

Clinicians around the country have been using stem cell therapy (SCT) for years to treat back pain and even difficult spinal conditions like arachnoiditis. However, these clinics have been operating under the scythe of potential persecution for using products not approved by the FDA.

Not only has this placed them squarely in the crosshairs of regulatory authorities which issue warning letters and file lawsuits, but it has also subjected them to internet censorship by Google and others.

The Mesoblast-Grunenthal partnership is indicative of the fact that major corporate investment in SCT is increasing -- and that can be a great thing for consumer choice. More and more biotech investors are recognizing that SCT is the future of medicine, especially when it comes to treating conditions caused by chronic inflammation. Forbes reports that the market size of the SCT industry was $8.65 billion in 2018, with a projected annual growth rate of 8.8%.

We saw recent evidence of this trend with Bayer’s acquisition of Bluerock Therapeutics’ and its stem cell treatments for Parkinson’s disease and other chronic illnesses. And Boston-based Vertex Pharmaceuticals recently acquired Semma Therapeutics for $950 million in a bet that its SCT products could cure type 1 diabetes.

Why is the SCT market so robust? Transparency Market Research attributes it to a “rise in consumer awareness.” In other words, people are desperate for relief and looking for new treatments. Suffice it to say, any additional treatment option for those suffering from back pain is more than welcome.

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A. Rahman Ford, PhD, is a lawyer and research professional. He is a graduate of Rutgers University and the Howard University School of Law, where he served as Editor-in-Chief of the Howard Law Journal.

Rahman lives with chronic inflammation in his digestive tract and is unable to eat solid food. He has received stem cell treatment in China. 

The information in this column is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Enough Is Enough!

By David Eaton, Guest Columnist

Back in 2007, when my back pain became so severe that it was affecting my ability to work, I wrote an email to my boss using the subject line, "Enough is Enough!"

My pain level was hindering my ability to concentrate so much that, despite having a college education, I had to ask a friend how to spell the word "place." I could not figure out why "plase" sounded right but looked so wrong.  

The previous night, I could not even read a lesson to the teenagers at my church, despite the fact that I had taught the exact same lesson twice before -- and I was the one who wrote it.

Pain medication and procedures such as epidural nerve blocks and RFA treatments kept my pain under control for most of the past decade, until the CDC introduced its opioid prescribing guideline. As a result, I have been bedridden for most of the past month.

My pain issues began 40 years ago in my senior year of high school, when I was in a motor vehicle accident which resulted in me being thrown through the rear window of the car and landing 35 feet away on my head. The impact caused a compression fracture at the base of my neck and damage to multiple discs as well.

Within a few years, it became necessary for a neurosurgeon to cut a section out of both of the occipital nerves going up the back of my neck and into my scalp as a long-term treatment for the massive headaches I was having.

Unfortunately, the nerves grew back together after 35 years and the migraine headaches have returned --- along with nerve related pain caused by disc degeneration and arthritis.

DAVID EATON

DAVID EATON

Another auto accident 25 years ago caused my knees to slam into the hard dash of my minivan. During the ambulance ride to the hospital, the paramedics told me that I would likely be using a cane within 5 years and in a wheelchair within a decade. They were not far off. I managed to go 13 years before the pain in my knees became so severe that I could no longer climb in and out of my car or walk into the office.

Now, after being on disability for a decade, I am unable to straighten my legs. Attempting to stand, much less walk a step or two, is both excruciating and impossible.

And, if you order right now, we will include a free congenital birth defect that resulted in severe stenosis in my lower back. This was only magnified when I suffered a slipped disc 12 years ago.

It was at that time that I was referred to a pain clinic, which used a combination of medications and procedures to control my pain. Those treatments were very successful. While they did not eliminate the pain, they were at least able to keep it at a manageable level until the CDC stuck their nose between my doctor and myself.

Their guideline has resulted in some pain clinics not prescribing anything stronger than what you can get over the counter. While I am sure that part of the clinics’ decision making included the fact that they make profits off of additional office visits, as well as surgical procedures, the end result is the same: Patients are left hurting and becoming depressed to the point of suicide.  

My doctors regularly question me about suicidal thoughts, as well as a list of other mandatory questions any time I even hint at being depressed. The truth is that I am depressed and have been for quite some time, but even more so now that the pain is so much more severe.

The CDC guideline, a knee-jerk reaction to the opioid epidemic, has resulted in my daily use of extended release opioids to be cut in half. This led to a doubling of not just the amount, but the severity of my pain.

To make matters worse, a change in insurance coverage resulted in me having to be treated by a different pain clinic. The new doctor took me completely off anti-inflammatory medication for the arthritis in my back, neck and knees. The resulting pain wakes me up at the slightest movement. The pain in my knees is so excruciating when I attempt to get from my bed or recliner and into my power chair for a trip to the restroom, that that I put it off as long as I can. 

In addition, the sensory nerves in my legs are now so inflamed that I feel as if someone is stabbing me to the bone or trying to pry off one of my toenails.  I feel as if someone has poured boiling hot coffee down my legs, giving me severe burns on my thighs.

Like I said, enough is enough! I have more pain than I can handle. Something has to give and I am praying that it is a relaxation of the CDC guideline. Maybe it would help if I could get a medical transport van to carry me to the CDC so I could pour a pot of hot coffee down some guy's pants and then check the severity of his burns by repeatedly stabbing him with a meat thermometer.

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David Eaton resides outside of Atlanta, GA with his wife of 36 years. He has 2 grown sons, both married, and 4 beautiful grandkids. Prior to becoming disabled, David worked in the IT field. He was also heavily involved in his church, where he taught Sunday school and served as Youth Minister.

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

The information in this column 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.

An Old Disease Returns in Modern Times

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Dr. Forest Tennant may no longer be practicing medicine, but he continues his groundbreaking research into the causes and treatment of adhesive arachnoiditis (AA), a chronic, progressive and painful inflammation of spinal nerves.

Once a rare disease linked in the 19th century to infections such as syphilis and tuberculosis, arachnoiditis is re-appearing in surprising numbers and for completely different reasons. Tennant believes millions of Americans may have developed AA, which is often misdiagnosed as “failed back syndrome” – chronic back pain that fails to respond or grows worse after invasive spinal procedures.

“I think it’s now the number one cause of really severe pain in the country. I don’t think there’s any question about that,” says Tennant. “When I closed my clinic, about 70% of the people in there who had to take high dose opioids had an issue with arachnoiditis.”

Tennant and co-author Ingrid Hollis have written a new book -- “Adhesive Arachnoiditis: An Old Disease Re-Emerges in Modern Times” -- to help doctors and patients recognize the symptoms of AA and to offer hope for treating a disease long thought to be incurable.

Why is AA re-emerging?  Tennant says a “perfect storm” began to appear around the year 2000, when longer lifespans, obesity and sedentary lifestyles contributed to more cases. Lack of exercise has long been associated with chronic back pain.

Arthritis, accidents, repetitive stress injuries and even Lyme disease can also cause degenerative spinal conditions that lead to AA.

“But the real factor contributing is probably sedentary lifestyles. Look at the number of people spending 6 to 8 hours a day in front of a computer or TV screen,” says Tennant. “I’m really trying to bring attention to the fact that people need to be aware that this is something that can happen because of our lifestyles.”

As more Americans sought treatment for back pain, millions were given “interventional” procedures such as epidural steroid injections and spinal surgeries – a trend that appears to have increased as opioids fell out of favor. While most interventional procedures do not result in complications, all it takes is a single misplaced needle or scalpel to damage the spinal cord and trigger a lifetime sentence of AA.

“Everybody wants to blame the epidurals and the surgeries for these problems, but they were only doing these things when there were medical indications for them. And if they do the surgeries and the epidurals, a certain percentage of them are going to get arachnoiditis,” Tennant told PNN.

“There is a risk/benefit to these procedures. If you start going in and operating on the spine or you have half a dozen epidural injections, you start increasing your risk for developing adhesive arachnoiditis. One of the points I want to make is that it is the underlining spinal conditions that are causing the problems. The interventions and the surgeries may accelerate it, but the condition was already set.”

For many years, Tennant was one of the few doctors in the U.S. willing to treat AA patients with high doses of opioids. Intractable pain patients from around the country traveled to California to see Tennant – which led to his home and office being raided by the DEA in 2017. No charges were ever filed against Tennant, but the stress of being investigated led to his retirement from clinical practice.

Tennant now consults with other doctors and is developing new protocols for treating AA with hormones and drugs that reduce pain and inflammation while stimulating nerve growth. His book includes a self-screening test for patients and a list of AA symptoms.

Most essential in any AA diagnosis is a good MRI of the spine. Tennant has a library of over 300 MRI’s sent to him by patients and doctors in dozens of countries — a testament to how AA is re-emerging worldwide.

(Dr. Tennant and the Tennant Foundation have given financial support to Pain News Network and are currently sponsoring PNN’s Patient Resources section.)  

Chronic Pain Patients Are Collateral Damage of the Opioid Crisis

By Diana Franklin, Guest Columnist

I have been watching the news a lot lately. It seems like much of the coverage is devoted to the opioid crisis, and rightfully so. But I feel it’s a little one-sided.

I fully understand the issue with illegal drugs, doctors overprescribing, pharmaceutical companies flooding markets with powerful pills, and how all of that is a very big problem. I hate that so many are addicted and something needs to be done to stop it.

However, I also know that there are law abiding citizens in serious, legitimate pain that are getting swept up in the chaos and suffering because of it. These people feel like they're being punished and forgotten about. I know this, because I am one of them.

I had severe scoliosis as a kid. When I was 12, I was told it was progressing so quickly that I could end up bedridden or possibly dead by the age of 21. I had to have surgery to straighten and fuse a large portion of my spine with metal rods. Luckily, the surgery was a success.

When I was in my 30’s, one of the discs that hadn't been fused in my lower back slipped. A doctor did two laminectomies, where they shaved down the back side of the vertebrae. A year later, I had another surgery on the cervical spine in my neck.

These surgeries may have fixed the problem with the discs, but unfortunately the damage was done and I was left with severe nerve damage and in constant pain.

DIANA FRANKLIN

DIANA FRANKLIN

I saw a pain management specialist and tried several different pain medications until I found something that helped. I was still very limited in what I could do, but I was at least able to get out of the house on occasion, though I was unable to work and had to go on disability.

While battling these health issues, I lost my husband and had to find a way to survive with my two sons. This was made even more difficult when my pain started getting worse. I got an MRI which revealed that I also have degenerative disc disease. There is very little space between the few discs in my lower back that aren't fused, meaning that bone is rubbing on bone, crushing the nerves and causing tremendous pain.

With oxycodone, I was still in a great deal of pain, but as long as I didn't get up and do too much, I could push through the day. I always took less than needed and tried hard to manage the pain any other way before I took my pills. I had regular drug tests, per my doctor’s protocol, to ensure that I wasn't taking too much.

I have seen this doctor for 20 years and he always went above and beyond, with all of his patients, to ensure that he only gave them what they need to control their pain without becoming addicted.

Recently, the government stopped allowing my doctor to prescribe any opioids, leaving many of his patients, including myself, without any pain medication at all. Due to the pain and nerve damage, I have trouble walking, my hands and arms will hurt and swell up, and my back feels like it's being crushed. I have severe migraines and often end up crying due to the pain.

I can hardly get up to go across the room without help and every step causes extreme pain. I can't think straight and wind up exhausted because every ounce of energy I have goes to fighting the pain.

Because there is so much damage to my spine, managing the pain is my only real option. The few other options I have aren't covered by insurance and there’s no guarantee that they will help. They could possibly make my situation worse.

My life has gone from enjoying my kids and young grandkids to being essentially trapped in my recliner, not knowing how much longer I can live with the pain.

I have been strongly against illegal drugs all my life. I believe that the government should do what it can to make sure criminals aren't getting their hands on these medications and crackdown on doctors that overprescribe them.

However, by taking pain medication away from everyone, they have made me collateral damage. Patients like me, even those with cancer, are being left without any pain medication at all. Some have committed suicide because they just can't handle the pain.

I am trying hard to fight against thoughts like that, but it is difficult when every moment is spent in excruciating pain. Something has to be done to allow doctors to prescribe pain medicine to those who truly need it, without fear of government prosecution. Put in strict regulations, drug testing and criteria that people have to meet, so that those in legitimate pain can still be given the lifesaving pain relief that they desperately need.

I don't have all the answers, but I know that something needs to be done and we need to be heard. Please, don't sit by as so many suffer. People like me fight our battles every day just to survive, but it gets harder every second that we're in blinding, unthinkable pain.

People talk all the time about the people who die in overdoses. That is indeed a tragedy, but what no one wants to talk about are the people dying simply because they can't cope with the amount of pain that they're in. We need a solution and we need it now! More than anything, we need a loud voice to be heard above all the other shouting that seems to be surrounding this issue.

Please help me get the word out, not just about my story, but so many other stories out there of people in pain. I want as many people as possible, especially lawmakers, to see this and understand what we go through. Please like and share with everyone you can.

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Diana Franklin lives in Texas.

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.

Medicare to Cover Acupuncture in Pilot Program

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

A week after a federal report documented a significant decline in opioid prescriptions among Medicare beneficiaries, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has taken a tentative step to cover acupuncture as an alternative treatment for chronic low back pain.

Under a CMS proposal, patients enrolled in clinical trials of acupuncture sponsored by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) or in studies approved by CMS would be covered under Medicare’s Part D program. CMS has been collaborating with the NIH in studying acupuncture as a treatment of chronic low back pain in adults 65 years of age and older.

In a statement, CMS acknowledged that while “questions remain” about acupuncture’s effectiveness, interest in the therapy had grown in recent years as a non-drug alternative to opioids.  

Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese form of treatment that involves the insertion of fine needles into various points on the body to alleviate pain and other symptoms.

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“Chronic low back pain impacts many Medicare patients and is a leading reason for opioid prescribing,” said CMS Principal Deputy Administrator of Operations and Policy Kimberly Brandt. “Today’s proposed decision would provide Medicare patients who suffer from chronic low back pain with access to a nonpharmacologic treatment option and could help reduce reliance on prescription opioids.”

Currently, acupuncture is not covered by Medicare. CMS is inviting public comment on the proposal to gather evidence and help determine if acupuncture is appropriate for low back pain. Comments will be accepted through August 14.

“Defeating our country’s epidemic of opioid addiction requires identifying all possible ways to treat the very real problem of chronic pain, and this proposal would provide patients with new options while expanding our scientific understanding of alternative approaches to pain.” said Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar.

Spending on Opioids Peaked in 2015

Medicare Part D spending on opioid prescriptions has been falling for years. It peaked in 2015 at $4.2 billion and now stands at its lowest level since 2012, according to a report released last week by the HHS Office of Inspector General.

The decline in opioid prescriptions appears to be accelerating. Last year, 13.4 million Medicare beneficiaries received an opioid prescription, down from 14.1 million in 2017.

SOURCE: HHS OFFICE OF INSPECTOR GENERAL

SOURCE: HHS OFFICE OF INSPECTOR GENERAL

The Inspector General identified over 350,000 Medicare patients as receiving high amounts of opioids, with an average daily dose great than 120 MME (morphine milligram equivalent) for at least three months. The CDC opioid guideline recommends that daily doses not exceed 90 MME.  

The report highlighted the case of an unnamed Pennsylvania woman who received 10,728 oxycodone tablets and 570 fentanyl patches in 2018. Her average daily dose was 2,900 MME. She received all of her opioid prescriptions from a single physician.

The report said there were 198 prescribers who “warrant further scrutiny” because they ordered high doses of opioids for multiple patients.

“Although these opioids may be necessary for some patients, prescribing to an unusually high number of beneficiaries at serious risk raises concerns. It may indicate that beneficiaries are receiving poorly coordinated care and could be in danger of overdose or dependence,” the report found.  “Prescribing to an unusually high number of beneficiaries at serious risk could also indicate that the prescriber is ordering medically unnecessary drugs, which could be diverted for resale or recreational use.”

Under a new federal law, CMS is required to identify and warn “outlier prescribers of opioids” on an annual basis about their prescribing patterns. Medicare insurers could also require high-risk patients to use selected pharmacies or prescribers for their opioid prescriptions.