Out-of-Pocket Costs for Neurology Drugs Rise Sharply

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Out-of-pockets costs for medications to treat multiple sclerosis, peripheral neuropathy and other neurologic conditions rose sharply over 12 years, according to a new study that found the average monthly cost to patients for MS drugs rose nearly 2,000 percent.

One in six people lives with a neurologic disease or disorder, according to the American Academy of Neurology. The annual cost of treating neurologic disorders in the United States is more than $500 billion.

“With many new, high-priced neurologic drugs coming to market and a recent rise in use of high-deductible insurance plans, which shift costs to patients, it is likely out-of-pocket costs will continue to increase,” said lead author Brian Callaghan, MD, of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

The study was published online in the journal Neurology.

Callaghan and his colleagues examined out-of-pocket costs for over 912,000 people with MS, neuropathy, epilepsy, dementia or Parkinson’s disease who were privately insured from 2004 to 2016.

Researchers found that out-of-pocket costs for MS drugs showed the steepest monthly increase. Patients paid an average of $309 a month in 2016, compared to just $15 in 2004. Costs for MS patients in high-deductible health plans were even higher, averaging $661 per month or nearly $8,000 a year.

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Co-pays and deductibles for brand name medications for neuropathy, dementia and Parkinson’s disease also rose considerably.

“Everyone deserves affordable access to the medications that will be most beneficial, but if the drugs are too expensive, people may simply not take them, possibly leading to medical complications and higher costs later,” said Ralph Sacco, MD, President of the American Academy of Neurology.

Researchers said neurologists and other physicians usually do not know the cost of drugs they prescribe, so they don’t discuss alternative medications based on a patient’s disease, insurance plan, pharmacy and deductible.

“Out-of-pocket costs have risen to the point where neurologists should be able to consider the potential financial burden for the patient when prescribing medication, but they do not have this information available to them,” Callaghan said. “Neurologists need access to precise cost information for these drugs in the clinic so when they meet with patients to make treatment decisions, they can help minimize the financial burden.”

Even when a generic version of a drug becomes available, it can take years for out-of-pocket costs to drop substantially. It took five years for out-of-pocket costs for gabapentin, for example, to drop to those of other tricyclic anti-depressants after gabapentin went generic in 2004.

A 2015 study found an “alarming” increase in costs for MS drugs and suggested the price increases were coordinated by drug companies.

A Pained Life: Fearful Fortunes

By Carol Levy, PNN Columnist

I love fortune cookies, but have no faith in the fortunes themselves. I opened a cookie recently and out came this message: “Listen to what you know instead of what you fear.”

I am going through a bad time recently. For 19 years I have had a spontaneous remission of the worst of my trigeminal neuralgia pain.

The trigeminal nerve now seems to be regenerating and it worries me. I get sporadic tingling sensations in the numbed areas of my face, the result of a procedure done in 1979. Within the last few months, the spontaneous pain has also started coming back, not in the same way, and only one or two flares were horrific.

I am very fearful all the pain will return.

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My new neurologist specializes in headaches. My situation is an unknown to him. He is very nice but is essentially throwing drugs at me, a new one each time the one he just prescribed doesn't help or gives me terrible side effects. He is throwing things at the wall and hoping something will stick. I fear nothing will.

I finally found someone who specializes in trigeminal neuralgia and facial neuropathy, my disorders. She asked for a copy of my medical records so she can decide if she will accept me as a patient.  I fear she will refuse. Or if she agrees to see me will be unable to help — like almost all the others.

A woman I know has fibromyalgia and Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS). For years she has been on high dosages of Dilaudid and another strong opioid. Her doctor decided he would halve her dosages of both. She was appropriately fearful of being tapered. But to her astonishment she found she could tolerate the reductions. She is happily doing just as well on the lower dosages as she had been on the higher amounts.

A lot of what we go through is often based on fear. It is legitimate. We know what the pain is like, we know what the medications do, we know what we can and cannot do. A lot of our choices are fear based: It hurts when I do this, so therefore I will never do it again.

I am able to do so much more, feel so much better when I am on this particular medication and this particular dosage, so I will refuse any changes. I am used to this doctor/physical therapist/specialist being involved in my treatment, even though I am not always happy with them, so I will stay anyway.

It is hard to give up the fear. Pain is not like painting a room a new color and then deciding you don’t like it. You can always just repaint. But change what I am used to doing to deal with the pain? That is not so simple. My pain may increase and be even more unbearable, more daunting.

But what if I take the chance and find I am okay?

Our minds and bodies have been programmed to do all we can to avoid pain. Fear is one of the ways we deal with it. As a kid you touch a hot stove and feel the excruciating pain of a burn. You very quickly learn to fear a hot stove, the fear keeping you from hurting yourself in the same way again.

It is almost counter intuitive to heed the fortune: “Listen to what you know instead of what you fear.”

What we know is why we fear. Maybe, at least for us, the fortune should read: “'Listen to what you know, but take the chance of fear anyway.”

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Carol Jay Levy has lived with trigeminal neuralgia, a chronic facial pain disorder, for over 30 years. She is the author of “A Pained Life, A Chronic Pain Journey.”  Carol is the moderator of the Facebook support group “Women in Pain Awareness.” Her blog “The Pained Life” can be found here.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It 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.

1 in 5 Multiple Sclerosis Patients Misdiagnosed

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Nearly one in five patients who are told they have multiple sclerosis are misdiagnosed with the autoimmune disease, according to a new study of patients referred to two MS treatment centers in Los Angeles. The patients spent an average of four years being treated for MS before receiving a correct diagnosis.

MS is a chronic disease that attacks the body’s central nervous system, causing pain, numbness, difficulty walking, paralysis, loss of vision, and fatigue. The symptoms are similar to those of several other chronic conditions – including neuropathy, migraine and fibromyalgia – which often leads to a misdiagnosis.

Researchers at the Cedars-Sinai Multiple Sclerosis and Neuroimmunology Center analyzed the cases of 241 patients who had been diagnosed by other physicians and then referred to the Cedars-Sinai or UCLA MS clinics.

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Their findings, published in the journal Multiple Sclerosis and Related Disorders, indicate that 43 of the 241 patients (18%) with a previous diagnosis of MS did not meet the criteria for the disease.

"The diagnosis of MS is tricky. Both the symptoms and MRI testing results can look like other conditions, such as stroke, migraines and vitamin B12 deficiency," said lead author Marwa Kaisey, MD. "You have to rule out any other diagnoses, and it's not a perfect science."

The most common correct diagnoses was migraine (16%), radiologically isolated syndrome (RIS) (9%), spondylopathy (7%), and neuropathy (7%). RIS is a condition in which patients do not experience symptoms of MS even though their imaging tests look similar to those of MS patients.

The misdiagnosed patients received approximately 110 patient-years of unnecessary MS disease modifying drugs. Nearly half received medications that carry a known risk of developing progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy, a potentially fatal brain infection.

"I've seen patients suffering side effects from the medication they were taking for a disease they didn't have," Kaisey said. "Meanwhile, they weren't getting treatment for what they did have. The cost to the patient is huge — medically, psychologically, financially."

The cost of disease modifying medications for an MS patient in the U.S. exceeds $50,000 a year. Investigators estimated that the unnecessary treatments identified in this study alone cost almost $10 million. 

Researchers hope the results of the study will lead to new biomarkers and improved imaging techniques to help prevent future MS misdiagnoses.

A similar study in 2016 also found that MS patients were often misdiagnosed. One third of the patients were misdiagnosed for a decade or longer, most took unnecessary and potentially harmful medication to treat a disease they didn't have, and some even participated in clinical trials for experimental MS therapies. About a third suffered from morbid thoughts of death.

Ambroxol: A Potential New Treatment for Chronic Pain

By A Rahman Ford, PNN Columnist

Researchers say a drug long used in cough syrup and cold medicines shows potential for treating some types of neuropathic pain.

A small study recently published in the journal Headache found that topical administration of ambroxol in a cream could significantly decrease pain in patients with trigeminal neuralgia, a chronic facial condition that can make even routine tasks such as brushing one’s teeth excruciatingly painful. 

In their review of the medical records of five trigeminal neuralgia patients, German researchers reported that all five patients experienced pain reduction with ambroxol 20% cream being applied within 30 minutes of a pain flare, with pain relief lasting from 4 to 6 hours.  In one case, pain was eliminated completely in one week.  

The results were similar to those of previous German studies and were so significant that researchers recommended that ambroxol “should be investigated further as a matter of urgency.”

Similarly, a recent study in the journal Pain Management found that application of topical ambroxol reduced spontaneous pain in several patients with complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS), a little understood nerve condition that causes chronic pain after a significant injury or surgery.  Notably, ambroxol therapy improved several other neuropathy-related conditions in CRPS patients, including edema, allodynia, hyperalgesia, skin reddening, motor dysfunction and skin temperature.

An Old Drug with a New Purpose

With a pharmacological history that can be traced back to Indian ayurvedic medicine, ambroxol was initially approved in 1978 as a medication to break down mucus and make it easier to eliminate by coughing.  It is generally administered in tablet or syrup form. 

Ambroxol is also used to treat a sore throat associated with pharyngitis, thus its potential role as a potent local anesthetic.  The drug’s anesthetic properties stem from its ability to block sodium and calcium channels that transmit pain signals.

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Although the idea that ambroxol can treat a sore throat is widely accepted, its application to other forms of pain is more recent.  

Previous studies using animal models of neuropathic pain have been promising.  In a 2005 study, researchers effectively reduced – and in some cases eliminated – chronic neuropathic and inflammatory pain in rats. Indian researchers also found ambroxol effective in treating neuropathic pain in rats, attributing its success to its antioxidative and anti-inflammatory properties.  Unfortunately, human studies are few at this point.

Ambroxol and Fibromyalgia

A 2017 Clinical Rheumatology study showed that ambroxol can play a key role in treating chronic pain associated with fibromyalgia.  As reported by Fibromyalgia News Today, researchers from Mexico added ambroxol to the treatment regimens of 25 fibromyalgia patients, three times a day for one month.  At the end of the study, pain scores decreased significantly and there was also noticeable improvement in sleep disturbances, stiffness and autonomic nervous system dysfunction.  No major adverse events were reported. 

Another 2017 study supported these findings, with the authors concluding that “fibromyalgia treatment with ambroxol should be systematically investigated” because the drug “is the only treatment option used thus far that has the potential to address not just individual but all of the aforementioned aspects of pain.”

Although data on its effectiveness in humans are limited, ambroxol shows great potential in treating painful conditions for which there are currently few safe and effective options.  It is particularly attractive because it has few significant side effects, is not addictive and can be administered topically in some instances.

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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. He earned his PhD at the University of Pennsylvania.

Rahman lives with chronic inflammation in his digestive tract and is unable to eat solid food.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It 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.

Experimental Stem Cell Therapy Reverses MS

By Steve Weakley

A small but promising study has shown that an experimental stem cell therapy can dramatically slow the progression of multiple sclerosis. Some MS patients treated with their own stem cells even experienced a reversal of their symptoms that has lasted for years.

MS is a chronic, incurable and progressive disease that attacks the body’s central nervous system, causing numbness in the limbs, difficulty walking, paralysis, loss of vision, fatigue and pain. The disease affects over 2 million people around the world.

An international team of researchers enrolled 110 patients in the study with relapsing-remitting MS, a version of the disease where symptoms appear for a few days or weeks, followed by periods of remission.

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Half of the patients were treated with standard MS medications as a control group, while the other half went through a four-step experimental procedure.

The experimental group was given chemotherapy to stimulate the production of hematopoietic stem cells that recharge the immune system. Those stem cells were then removed from the patients’ blood and frozen.  After that, a more powerful round of chemotherapy was used to wipe out the patients’ damaged immune systems, and the thawed stem cells were put back into their bodies by transfusion.

Over half of the 55 patients in the control group continued to see their disease progress, while only three patients got worse in the experimental stem cell group. The other 52 had fewer symptoms and a better quality of life. The findings were reported in the journal JAMA.

“It’s the best evidence comparing stem cell transplants to standard therapy,” Harry Atkins, MD, a stem cell scientist at Ottawa Hospital in Canada told Vox . “This is one of the first pieces of proof that, yes, patients who have aggressive MS do better after a transplant than with the standard therapy.”

“The stem cell therapy gets patients off lifelong treatments and gives them results that have never been seen before with this disease,” said lead author Richard Burt, MD, a stem cell researcher and physician at Northwestern University.

One of Burt’s patients who benefited from the stem cell transplant is 28-year old Amanda Loy, who told Vox that prior to treatment she needed a cane to walk and was unable to work.  Within a year of treatment her symptoms had disappeared.

“It sounds so dramatic, but (the treatment) gave me my life back,” said Loy, who now works as a full-time teacher, runs half marathons and plays soccer with her 10-year-old son. She no longer takes MS medication.

Researchers still don’t know if the stem cell therapy will work with other forms of MS or how long the benefits will last. But it’s the first treatment that has shown the potential to actually reverse the disease.

“I do think it’s going to change the natural history of MS,” says Burt. “When you use it in the right group of patients with MS, you get these really gratifying results.”

A recent study by Australian researchers found that another experimental stem cell therapy shows promise in treating patients with progressive multiple MS, the most difficult-to-treat form of the disease.

Scientists at the University of Queensland extracted immune cells from patients who had either primary or secondary progressive MS. The cells – known as T-cells – were then “trained” in a laboratory to target and kill cells infected with the Epstein Barr virus, which has long been associated with MS.

When the altered T-cells were injected back into the bloodstream of 10 patients, seven said their symptoms improved. They had more energy, improved concentration, slept better, and had improved vision and balance. There were no serious side effects.

Scrambler Therapy Helped My Daughter Walk Again

By Reggie Greening, Guest Columnist

Beginning in August 2017, my daughter Amanda began having severe pain in her left foot after spraining her ankle. She was 20 years old at the time and described the pain as feeling as though her bones were being crushed by a red-hot anvil.

Over the next few months, Amanda started having more and more symptoms. It began with sharp pain, then discoloration, and severe swelling set in. This was about the time when she stopped being able to walk and had to be put on opioid medication in an attempt to manage the pain.

The bone crushing sensation began around the end of September, followed closely by burning pain. Amanda was still unable to walk and was taking opioids every four to six hours like clockwork. No one could figure out what was wrong or how to manage the pain other than with opioids.

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While attempting to get a diagnosis, Amanda went through many rounds of testing. She had multiple x-rays, two MRIs (one with contrast dye injected intravenously), a three-phase bone scan, a nerve conductivity test, and two phases of bloodwork examined. She also went to a plethora of doctors, including a podiatrist, orthopedist, rheumatologist, dermatologist, physical therapists, homeopathic physician, chiropractor, pain management doctor, and a general medicine doctor.

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The podiatrist and one of her physical therapists suspected Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS), and her podiatrist was the one who eventually determined the diagnosis of CRPS on February 16, 2018.

This spurred my research to find a more sustainable treatment option for Amanda. I spent hours searching online before discovering Scrambler Therapy.

I found a physician in New Jersey who posted videos on YouTube about Scrambler Therapy (also known as Calmare Pain Relief Therapy) and its benefits for those suffering with CRPS and other chronic nerve conditions.

We live in Louisiana, so I looked for a doctor who had a Scrambler Therapy machine closer to our home state. I eventually found a doctor in Dallas who has a machine in his office.

Amanda’s first round of treatment was administered by an osteopathic doctor in March 2018. After the fourth consecutive day of treatment, she was able to walk with the aid of crutches for the first time in seven months. The next day, after her fifth treatment, Amanda was able to walk independently. By the end of her initial round of treatment, she was entirely off opioids and NSAID pain relievers.

Our local TV station did a story about Amanda’s recovery.

Right now, the Scrambler treatment is not covered by insurance and payment for it adds up rather quickly. I am trying to get this therapy more widely acknowledged and known about so that it may become an option for others suffering with chronic neuropathic pain.

I have seen the benefits of Scrambler Therapy firsthand in my daughter. At the time of this writing, Amanda has been off opioids for two months and has been able to maintain the benefits of the initial treatment through booster treatments as needed.

Scrambler Therapy has the potential to help not just those suffering from CRPS (for whom pain relief often seems distant and hopeless), but also for those suffering from other neuropathic pain conditions.

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The Greening family lives in Shreveport, Louisiana.

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.

Can Gabapentin Improve Your Sex Life?

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Over the years the nerve drug gabapentin (Neurontin) has been used to treat a cornucopia of chronic pain conditions, from fibromyalgia and diabetic neuropathy to hot flashes and shingles.

Gabapentin is so widely prescribed that a Pfizer executive once called the drug “the snake oil of the twentieth century” because researchers found it successful in treating just about everything they studied.

Add sexual function to the list.

In a small study, researchers at Rutgers University found that gabapentin improved sexual desire, arousal and satisfaction in 89 women with provoked vulvodynia, a chronic condition characterized by stinging, burning and itching at the entry to the vagina. Vulvar pain often occurs during intercourse, which leads to loss of interest in sex.

The improvements in desire, arousal and sexual satisfaction were small, but considered “statistically significant” in research parlance. Gabapentin did not improve lubrication or orgasm.

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"Our theory was that reducing pelvic floor muscle pain might reduce vulvodynia pain overall and thus improve sexual function," said Gloria Bachmann, MD, director of the Women's Health Institute at Rutgers and lead author of the study published in the Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

"We found that women with greater muscle pain responded better in terms of pain and improved arousal than those with less pain, which suggests that Gabapentin be considered for treatment in women who have significant muscle tightness and spasm in the pelvic region.”

Does this mean gabapentin is a female version of Viagra? Not necessarily, says Bachmann, who stressed that the study only focused on women with vulvodynia.

“We didn't research the question of gabapentin enhancing sexual function in all women,” Bachmann wrote in an email to PNN. “The decision to give gabapentin to a woman who reports chronic vulvar pain and sexual dysfunction would have to be made on an individual basis, depending on her medical history and the results of her physical and pelvic examination.

“From the data, it appears that women with increased muscle tenderness of the pelvic floor may be the group who benefit most from gabapentin.”

Sales of gabapentin have soared in recent years — not because it improves sexual satisfaction — but because it is seen as a safer pain reliever than opioid medication.

Patients prescribed gabapentin often complain of side effects such as mood swings, depression, dizziness, fatigue and drowsiness.  Drug abusers have also discovered that gabapentin can heighten the effects of heroin, cocaine and other illicit substances, and it is increasingly being abused.

Gene Therapy Eases Chronic Pain in Dogs

By Lisa Marshall, University of Colorado at Boulder

When Shane the therapy dog was hit by a Jeep, life changed for him and his guardian, Taryn Sargent.

The impact tore through the cartilage of Shane's left shoulder. Arthritis and scar tissue set in. Despite surgery, acupuncture and several medications, he transformed from a vibrant border collie who kept watch over Sargent on long walks to a fragile pet who needed extensive care.

"Sometimes he would just stop walking and I'd have to carry him home," recalls Sargent, who has epilepsy and relies on her walks with Shane to help keep her seizures under control. "It was a struggle to see him in that much pain."

Today, 10-year-old Shane's pain and reliance on medication have been dramatically reduced and he's bounding around like a puppy again, 18 months after receiving a single shot of an experimental gene-therapy invented by CU Boulder neuroscientist Linda Watkins

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shane and taryn sargent (casey cass/cu boulder)

Thus far, the opioid-free, long-lasting immune modulator known as XT-150 has been tested in more than 40 Colorado dogs with impressive results and no adverse effects. With human clinical trials now underway in Australia and California, Watkins is hopeful the treatment could someday play a role in addressing the nation's chronic pain epidemic.

"I'm hoping the impact on pets, their guardians and people with chronic pain could be significant," said Watkins, who has worked more than 30 years to bring her idea to fruition. "It's been a long time coming."

The Role of Glial Cells

Watkins' journey began in the 1980s when, as a new hire in the department of psychology and neuroscience, she began to rock the boat in the field of pain research.

Conventional wisdom held that neurons were the key messengers for pain, so most medications targeted them. But Watkins proposed that then-little-understood cells called "glial cells" might be a culprit in chronic pain. Glial cells are immune cells in the brain and spinal cord that make people ache when they're sick. Most of the time, that function protects us. 

Watkins proposed that in the case of chronic pain, which can sometimes persist long after the initial injury has healed, that ancient survival circuitry somehow gets stuck in overdrive. She was greeted with skepticism.

"The whole field was like 'what on Earth is she talking about?'"

She and her students hunkered down in the lab nonetheless, ultimately discovering that activated glial cells produce specific inflammatory compounds which drive pain. They also learned that, after the initial sickness or injury fades, the cells typically produce a compound called Interleukin 10 (IL-10) to dampen the process they started.

"IL-10 is Mother Nature's anti-inflammatory," she explains. "But in the onslaught of multiple inflammatory compounds in chronic pain, IL-10's dampening cannot keep pace."

Over the years, she and her team experimented with a host of different strategies to boost IL-10. They persisted and, in 2009, Watkins co-founded Xalud Therapeutics. Their flagship technology is an injection, either into the fluid-filled space around the spinal cord or the site of an inflamed joint, that delivers circles of DNA in a sugar/saline solution to cells, instructing them to ramp up IL-10 production.

With financial help from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the MayDay Fund and CU's Technology Transfer Office – which has provided intellectual property support, assistance with licensing agreements, and help obtaining a $100,000 research grant in 2018 – Watkins is edging closer to bringing her idea to clinical practice.

She has teamed up with veterinary chronic pain specialist Rob Landry, owner of the Colorado Center for Animal Pain Management in Westminster, to launch the IL-10 research study in dogs.

Their results have not been published yet. But thus far, the researchers say, the results look highly promising.

"They're happier, more engaged, more active and they're playing again," said Landry, as he knelt down to scratch Shane's belly after giving him a clean bill of health.

With Shane able to accompany her on her walks again, Sargent has also seen her quality of life improve. Her seizures, which increased in frequency when Shane was injured, have subsided again.

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linda watkins with shane (casey cass/cu boulder)

Human Studies Underway

Because the treatment is so localized and prompts the body's own pain-killing response, it lacks the myriad side effects associated with opioids – including constipation and dependency – and it can last for many months after a single injection.

Ultimately, that could make it an attractive option for people with neuropathic pain or arthritis, Watkins says.

This summer, Xalud Therapeutics launched the first human study in Australia, to test the safety, tolerability and efficacy of the compound. Another one-year clinical trial of 32 patients with osteoarthritis of the knee is now underway in Napa, California.

More research is necessary in both pets and people, Watkins stresses. But she's hopeful.

"If all goes well, this could be a game-changer."

Feds Funding Study of Cannabis as Opioid Alternative

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Columbia University has been awarded a grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) to investigate whether medical cannabis can reduce the use of opioids and overdose risk in chronic pain patients.  

The grant was awarded after researchers with Columbia Care completed a small pilot study that found nearly two-thirds of patients with chronic nerve pain were able to reduce or stop their opioid use. Columbia Care is a private medical marijuana company not affiliated with the university that operates a chain of cannabis dispensaries around the country.

“There is an urgent need to investigate the potential impact of cannabinoid use on limiting opioid overdose risk and to determine whether specific products are more beneficial for certain populations of patients with pain and opioid use,” said Arthur Robin Williams, MD, a professor in the Division on Substance Use Disorders in the Columbia University Department of Psychiatry.

The pilot study involved 76 neuropathy patients in New York State who were given Columbia Care’s dose-metered cannabis products for nine months. By the end of the study, 62 percent of the patients were able to reduce or stop using opioid pain medication.

Columbia Care makes a variety of medical cannabis products that come in tablets, tinctures, suppositories, topical formulations or can be used in vaporizers. 

“We have seen through this pilot study the power of our proprietary formulations to reduce our patients’ dependence on opioids in a defensible, scientific manner,” said Rosemary Mazanet, MD, chief science officer and chair of the scientific advisory board at Columbia Care.

DRUG POLICY ALLIANCE

DRUG POLICY ALLIANCE

Although medical marijuana is often touted as a possible solution to the nation’s opioid crisis, research findings so far have been mixed.

A recent study by the RAND Corporation found little evidence that states with medical marijuana laws see reductions in legally prescribed opioids. While some pain patients may be using or experimenting with medical marijuana, RAND researchers do not believe they represent a significant part of the opioid analgesic market.

"If anything, states that adopt medical marijuana laws... experience a relative increase in the legal distribution of prescription opioids,” researchers found.

Another study of Medicare and Medicaid patients found that prescriptions for morphine, hydrocodone and fentanyl dropped in states with medical marijuana laws, while daily doses for oxycodone increased. A second study found a 6% decline in opioid prescribing to Medicaid patients in states with medical marijuana laws.  Both studies were conducted during a period when nationwide opioid prescribing was already in decline.

A 2014 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that opioid overdoses declined by nearly 25 percent in states where medical marijuana was legalized.

New Lyme Disease Test Could Lead to Earlier Treatment

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

At long last, scientists are close to developing a new test to detect Lyme disease weeks sooner than current tests -- allowing patients to begin treatment earlier.

Lyme disease is a bacterial illness spread by ticks. Left untreated, it can lead to chronic conditions such as joint and back pain, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia and neuropathy.

Borrelia burgdorferi was first identified as the bacteria that causes Lyme disease in 1983.  The antibody tests currently used to detect Borrelia were developed a decade later and have a number of shortcomings. They can take up to three weeks to get results and cannot distinguish between an active infection or an old one.

A team of scientists recently reported in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases that advances in molecular diagnostics should make a new DNA test for Borrelia technically feasible.

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“These direct tests are needed because you can get Lyme disease more than once, features are often non-diagnostic and the current standard FDA-approved tests cannot distinguish an active, ongoing infection from a past cured one,” said lead author Steven Schutzer, MD, a physician-scientist at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School.

“The problem is worsening because Lyme disease has increased in numbers to 300,000 per year in the United States and is spreading across the country and world.”

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Early symptoms of Lyme disease include fever, chills, headaches, fatigue, muscle and joint aches, and swollen lymph nodes. A delayed rash often appears at the site of the tick bite, which resembles a ring or bulls-eye. When there is no rash, a reliable laboratory test is needed to detect an active disease.

“The new tests that directly detect the Lyme agent’s DNA are more exact and are not susceptible to the same false-positive results and uncertainties associated with current FDA-approved indirect tests,” said Schutzer.

Lyme disease is usually treated with antibiotics, but some patients experience complications that lead to Lyme disease syndrome (PTLDS), with long-term symptoms such as fatigue, muscle and joint pain and cognitive issues. Autoimmune diseases have also been associated with chronic Lyme disease.

Lyrica Not Effective for Treating Traumatic Nerve Pain

By Pat Anson, Editor

Pregabalin is not effective in relieving chronic pain caused by traumatic nerve injury, but it may be useful as an analgesic in treating pain after surgery, according to a new study published in the Journal of Neurology.

The placebo-controlled study followed 539 patients in North America, Europe, Africa and Asia for three months. About half had nerve pain after surgery, while the rest had nerve pain after an accident or trauma.

Researchers found that pregabalin was not an effective pain reliever for the patients with traumatic nerve injuries, but the drug did provide better pain relief than placebo for the surgery patients.

"While these finding show that pregabalin is not effective in controlling the long-term pain for traumatic injury, it may provide relief for patients (that) experience post-surgical pain," said lead author John Markman, MD, director of the Translational Pain Research Program in the University of Rochester Department of Neurosurgery.

"The possibility that there was pain relief for those patients who had a hernia repair, or breast surgery for cancer, or a joint replacement lays the groundwork for future studies in these post-surgical syndromes where there is so much need for non-opioid treatments."

Pregabalin, which is sold by Pfizer under the brand name Lyrica, is FDA-approved for the treatment of chronic pain associated with shingles, spinal cord injury, fibromyalgia, and diabetic peripheral neuropathy.

It is also commonly prescribed as an "off label" treatment for other types of chronic pain and as an alternative to opioid medication.

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A major challenge for doctors is that biological changes in nerves and other tissues while healing from surgery or trauma vary from one patient to the next. There is also no diagnostic method that allows doctors to identify which patients will respond to a particular type of pain treatment.

"Given the rising rates of surgery and shrinking reliance on opioids, it is critical that we understand how to study new drugs that work differently in patients like the ones included in this study," Markman added.

While critics often say there is little or no evidence to support the long-term use of opioids, the same is true for other types of pain medication, including pregabalin. Nevertheless, in its guideline for opioids, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends pregabalin and its chemical cousin gabapentin as alternatives for treating chronic pain – without even mentioning their side effects or potential for abuse.

Pregabalin and gabapentin belong to a class of nerve medication called gabapentinoids, which were originally developed to treat epilepsy, not pain. In recent, deaths involving gabapentinoids have increased in the UK, Australia and Canada, where some addicts have learned the drugs can heighten the euphoric effect of heroin and other opioids.

The use of pregabalin and gabapentin has tripled in the U.S. over the past decade, but health officials have only recently started looking into their misuse and abuse. While gabapentin has a warning label cautioning users who take the drug with opioids, there is no similar warning for pregabalin.

Studies Warn of Pregabalin Deaths

By Pat Anson, Editor

Two new studies – one in Canada and one in Australia – should give pause to patients who use opioids and pregabalin (Lyrica), an anticonvulsant medication increasingly prescribed for fibromyalgia, neuropathy and other chronic pain conditions. Both studies found a number of overdose deaths that involve – but were not necessarily caused -- by pregabalin.

The Canadian study, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, looked at over 1,400 patients in Ontario on opioid medication from 1997 to 2016 who died from opioid-related causes. Another group of over 5,000 surviving opioid patients was used as a control group.

Researchers found that patients who were co-prescribed opioids and pregabalin had a significantly higher risk of an overdose.

The risk of death was over two times higher for patients receiving opioids and a high dose of pregabalin (over 300mg) compared to those who took opioids alone.

Patients on a low or moderate dose of pregabalin also had a heightened risk, although not as large.

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Researchers say pregabalin has a sedative effect and may interact with opioids in ways that increase respiratory depression. Few doctors and patients are aware of the risk, even though over half of Ontario residents who begin pregabalin therapy are also prescribed an opioid.

"There is an important drug interaction between opioids and pregabalin that can lead to increased risk of fatal overdose, particularly at high doses of pregabalin," lead author Tara Gomes, PhD, of the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences (ICES) and St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto, told MedPage Today.

"Clinicians should consider carefully whether to prescribe opioids and pregabalin together. If they decide that both medications are clinically appropriate, they should start with low doses and monitor their patients closely."

Lyrica (pregabalin) and Neurontin (gabapentin) are both made by Pfizer and belong to a class of anticonvulsant nerve medication called gabapentinoids. Sales of gabapentinoids have tripled in recent years, in part because of CDC prescribing guidelines that recommend the drugs as alternatives to opioid medication.  

U.S. health officials have only recently started looking into the misuse and abuse of gabapentinoids, which are increasingly used by addicts to enhance the euphoric effects of heroin and other illicit opioids. While gabapentin  has a warning label cautioning users who take the drug with opioids, there is no similar warning for pregabalin.

“Although current product monographs for gabapentin contain warnings about serious adverse events when this agent is combined with opioids, those for pregabalin do not. The importance of our finding warrants a revision of the pregabalin product monographs,” wrote Gomes.

Pregabalin Abuse in Australia

Health officials in Australia are also concerned about the growing use of pregabalin.  Researchers at the NSW Poisons Information Centre say poisoning cases involving pregabalin rose from zero in 2005 to 376 cases in 2016.

“Our study shows a clear correlation between the rapid and continuous rise of pregabalin dispensing and an increase in intentional poisonings and deaths associated with pregabalin,” said lead author Dr. Rose Cairns, a specialist at the NSW Poisons Information Centre.

According to the Australian Journal of Pharmacy (AJP), there have been 88 recorded deaths associated with pregabalin in recent years. Most of the deaths involved young, unemployed males who had a history of substance abuse, particularly with opioids, benzodiazepines, alcohol and illicit drugs.

“We believe that Australian doctors may not be aware of the abuse potential of pregabalin,” Cairns said. “Most patients who are prescribed this medication are in the older population but the group who are at high risk of overdosing are much younger. These people are likely to have been prescribed pregabalin despite having a history of substance abuse.”

According to researchers, up to two-thirds of people who intentionally misused pregabalin had a prior documented substance abuse history. “Prescribers need to consider this growing body of evidence that pregabalin has abuse potential before prescribing, especially to patients with substance abuse history,” said Cairns.

Pfizer did not respond to a request for comment on the Canadian and Australian studies.

New Treatments on Horizon for Chronic Pain

By Steve Weakley

Patients and doctors have long complained that there are few new treatments for chronic pain. And those that do come along are often reformulations of old medications or have unwelcome side effects.

Two developments this week suggest that trend may be changing. A new drug application has been submitted to the Food and Drug Administration for an “opioid of the future” that is less addictive, and research has uncovered a new way to treat neuropathic pain long term with a single injection.

In experiments on laboratory mice, researchers at the University of California at San Diego discovered a new method to block the root cause of pain with the injection of a naturally occurring protein, apolipoprotein A-I binding protein (AIBP). 

AIBP “turns off” a receptor called TLR4 that sits on the surface of nerve cells and searches for signs of infection or tissue damage.  Researchers say turning off the receptor prevents and even reverses inflammation and other cellular processes that create the sensation of pain.

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A single spinal injection of AIBP relieved neuropathic pain associated with chemotherapy in the mice for two months with no side effects, according to findings published in the journal Cell.

“What’s so special about our new approach, inhibiting the TLR4 receptor with AIBP, is that it actually modifies the pain processing systems themselves," says study co-author Tony Yaksh, PhD, a professor and vice chair for research in the Department of Anesthesiology at UCSD School of Medicine.

"So, if you think of neuropathic pain as a disease, then we see this as truly disease-modifying. We’re blocking the underlying mechanism that causes pain, not just masking the symptoms.”

Neuropathic pain is a common side effect of chemotherapy treatments for cancer. Chemotherapy not only inhibits the growth of cancer cells, it can permanently damage nerve cells and make people sensitive to even the slightest touch. Opioids and other medications such as gabapentin (Neurontin) are commonly prescribed for neuropathy, but both have unwelcome side effects.

“If it comes down to a choice between living with chronic pain or getting a spinal injection once every few months, we think most people would take the injection," said co-author Yury Miller, MD, a professor in the UCSD Department of Medicine. “As it stands now, AIBP could be developed as therapy for unremitting severe pain that only responds to high dose morphine. AIBP would remove the need for opioids, and reduce the potential for drug abuse.

"We're not saying we shouldn't use opiates to treat chronic pain, or in particular cancer pain—that would be a tragedy.” Yaksh said. "But it would also be a greater tragedy if we didn't support work to find a substitute for systemic opiates.”

“Opioid of the Future”

While AIBP is still in its experimental phase and could be years away from being available for treatment, Nektar Therapeutics’ so-called “opioid of the future” is one step closer to market.  Nektar has completed over a dozen clinical trials on NKTR-181 and applied to the FDA for approval of the drug as a treatment for chronic low back pain.

PNN has previously reported on NKTR-181, a new type of opioid that shows promise in relieving moderate to severe pain with less risk of abuse and addiction of traditional opioids like oxycodone or hydrocodone.

Because of its slow rate of entry into the central nervous system, NKTR-181 significantly reduces the “high” or euphoric effect that recreational drug users crave. Many pain sufferers don't feel that high when taking opioid medication, they just get pain relief.

In trials, NKTR-181 showed a 65% reduction in low back pain vs. placebo in tablets taken twice a day. Safety studies found recreational drug users had significantly less “drug liking” of NKTR-181 -- even at high doses -- when compared to oxycodone. Participants also had less daytime sleepiness and fewer withdrawal symptoms.

nektar therapeutics

nektar therapeutics

If it receives FDA approval, Nektar hopes to launch the drug commercially as early as next year. The company has yet to announce a partnership with a larger pharmaceutical company to help produce and commercialize NKTR-181 -- which is when the no-name "opioid of the future" will get a makeover with a branded name to make it more marketable.

Growing Abuse of Gabapentin

By Christine Vestal, Stateline

Doctors who are cutting back on prescribing opioids increasingly are opting for gabapentin, a safer, non-narcotic drug recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

By doing so, they may be putting their opioid-using patients at even greater risk.

Recently, gabapentin has started showing up in a substantial number of overdose deaths in hard-hit Appalachian states. The neuropathic (nerve-related) pain reliever was involved in more than a third of Kentucky overdose deaths last year.

Drug users say gabapentin pills, known as “johnnies” or “gabbies,” which often sell for less than a dollar each, enhance the euphoric effects of heroin and when taken alone in high doses can produce a marijuana-like high.

Medical researchers stress that more study is needed to determine the role gabapentin may have played in recent overdose deaths. However, a study of heroin users in England and Wales published last fall concluded that combining opioids and gabapentin “potentially increases the risk of acute overdose death” by hampering breathing and reversing users’ tolerance to heroin and other powerful opioids.

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Kentucky last year classified gabapentin as a controlled substance, making it harder for doctors to prescribe it in copious quantities and for long durations. The new classification also allows police to arrest anyone who illicitly sells the drug, although the state’s drug control chief, Van Ingram, said that was not the intent of the new law.

In the last two years, Illinois, Ohio, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Tennessee, Virginia and Wyoming also have moved to control the flow of gabapentin by requiring doctors and pharmacists to check a prescription drug database before prescribing it to patients to make sure they aren’t already receiving gabapentin, or some other medication that interacts with it, from another physician.

In a statement to Stateline, Pfizer communications director Steven Danehy said, “Reports of misuse and abuse with this class of medicines are limited and typically involve patients with a prior history of substance abuse, including opioids.”

The drugmaker also pledged to “continue working with regulatory authorities and health officials to evaluate and monitor the safety of these medicines.”

Prescribed for Many Conditions

Approved by the FDA in 1993 for the treatment of epilepsy and the nerve pain associated with shingles, gabapentin is sold by Pfizer under the brand name Neurontin. A generic form of the drug has been available since 2004 and is now sold by several other companies as well.

Gabapentin is now one of the most popular prescription drugs in the United States, according to the New England Journal of Medicine. It was the 10th-most-prescribed medication in 2016. Its more expensive cousin, pregabalin, sold as Lyrica and also made by Pfizer, was the eighth best-selling.

Many doctors recommend gabapentin to patients for a long list of disorders, including hot flashes, migraines, restless leg syndrome, fibromyalgia, and neuropathic pain associated with diabetes and spinal injuries. Some doctors also prescribe it for anxiety and insomnia.

Now, research is underway to determine whether gabapentin may be effective as a treatment for alcoholism.

Already, it is widely used to ease the symptoms of drug and alcohol detoxification. And addiction specialists routinely use gabapentin to manage pain in people who are either addicted or at risk of addiction to opioids and other substances.

Alone, high doses of gabapentin have not been found to affect breathing. The vast majority of gabapentin deaths, about 4 in 5, also involved opioids, according to the journal Addiction.

People who stop taking the medication abruptly, however, can suffer withdrawal symptoms such as trembling, sweats and agitation.

In February, Food and Drug Administration director Scott Gottlieb said the agency was reviewing the misuse of gabapentin and, for now, had determined no action was necessary. Similarly, the CDC has not issued a warning about gabapentin, nor has the Drug Enforcement Administration.

(Editor's note: the CDC opioid guidelines recommend gabapentin without any mention of the risk of abuse or overdose associated with the drug, or of possible side effects such as weight gain, anxiety and mood disorders.)

Early Signs of Abuse

In Kentucky, Ingram said it has been clear to police and pharmacists for the last three or four years that gabapentin was becoming an increasingly popular street drug. “People were seeking early refills, claiming they lost their prescriptions and openly conducting transactions in parking lots outside of drug stores,” he said.

But since it wasn’t a controlled substance, nothing was done about it. That’s likely to start changing with the new law, he said.

“Misuse of gabapentin is just one more collateral effect of the opioid epidemic,” said Caleb Alexander, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University who has been studying the heroin and prescription drug epidemic. When one drug becomes less available, drug users historically seek out alternatives, he said. “What is most surprising is the sheer magnitude of its use.”

The share of Appalachian drug users who reported using gabapentin to get high increased nearly 30-fold from 2008 to 2014, according to a 2015 study in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

Paul Earley, an addiction doctor practicing in Georgia and a board member of the American Society of Addiction Medicine, said, “We knew that a small subset of our addiction patients would abuse gabapentin.” But he said it wasn’t until 2016, when Ohio sounded an alarm about the drug’s association with overdose deaths, that addiction doctors started taking the problem more seriously.

“For years, we considered gabapentin to be ‘good for what ails you,’” Earley said. “But I’m much more cautious than I used to be. If there’s anything we’ve learned from the opioid epidemic, it’s that we need to rethink how we prescribe drugs we once assumed were safe.”

This is story is republished with permission by Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Light Therapy Used to Treat Neuropathic Pain

By Pat Anson, Editor

For someone with peripheral neuropathy, even the slightest touch can cause burning, stinging or shooting pain, usually in the hands or feet.

The pain is caused when the peripheral nervous system is damaged by diabetes, shingles, chemotherapy or some other medical condition. About 8% of adults worldwide suffer from some form of neuropathy. Medications prescribed to dull the pain – such as opioids, anti-depressants or gabapentin (Neurontin) -- often prove to be ineffective, don’t last long or have unwanted side effects.

Scientists in Italy have now discovered an experimental way to treat neuropathy that provides pain relief for weeks at a time without the use of medication. In experiments on laboratory mice, researchers at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Rome identified a specific set of nerve cells in mouse skin that play a significant role in neuropathic pain.

NATURE COMMUNICATIONs

NATURE COMMUNICATIONs

When injected with a light-sensitive chemical and then exposed to infrared light, the nerve cells pull away from the skin’s surface and stop sending pain signals. The pain-relieving effects of the light therapy appear to last for weeks.

The accompanying image shows the skin of a mouse, with the nerve cells that are responsible for sensitivity to touch highlighted in green. The neurons are primarily located around hair follicles.

The EMBL's research, first reported in the journal Nature Communications, is still in its early stages. But scientists say human skin tissue is similar to that of mice, indicating that light therapy might be effective in managing neuropathic pain in humans.

"In the end, our aim is to solve the problem of pain in both humans and animals," says Paul Heppenstall, PhD, EMBL group leader. "Of course, a lot of work needs to be done before we can do a similar study in people with neuropathic pain. That's why we're now actively looking for partners and are open for new collaborations to develop this method further, with the hope of one day using it in the clinic."

Heppenstall says light therapy works on the treated nerve cells the same way spicy food or capsaicin patches can cause nerve fibers to retract.  

"It's like eating a strong curry, which burns the nerve endings in your mouth and desensitizes them for some time," says Heppenstall. "The nice thing about our technique is that we can specifically target the small subgroup of neurons causing neuropathic pain."

There are many different types of nerve cells in skin, which respond to different sensations like vibration, cold, heat or normal pain. Researchers say those cells are not affected by the light treatment. The skin is only desensitized to a gentle touch, breeze, or tickling.

Previous attempts to develop drugs to treat neuropathic pain have mostly focused on targeting single molecules.

"We think however, that there's not one single molecule responsible, there are many," Heppenstall explains. "You might be able to succeed in blocking one or a couple, but others would take over the same function eventually. With our new illumination method, we avoid this problem altogether."

The neuropathic pain in mice was assessed with a simple touch. The mice would normally quickly withdraw their paw when it was gently touched, but after light therapy they exhibited normal reflexive response to touch. The effect of the therapy lasted for a few weeks, until the nerve endings grew back and the gentle touch caused pain again.

Opioid Hysteria Has Gone Too Far

By Lisa Kehrberg, MD, Guest Columnist

I’m a 43-year-old physician who retired due to illness at the age of 39. I have a rare genetic disease called acute intermittent porphyria (AIP), an extremely painful and disabling condition.

Due to an enzyme deficiency, AIP causes toxins to buildup in the liver. The symptoms of porphyria are primarily neurological with the most notable being abdominal pain -- a burning sensation that is almost unbearable. The pain is similar to what I’d imagine it would feel like to have a blowtorch placed against my stomach and back.

Acute porphyria also causes peripheral neuropathy in the hands and feet. Along with the pain comes severe nausea, vomiting, headaches, fatigue, muscle weakness, motor neuropathy, and fluctuations in blood pressure and pulse. About 10 percent of AIP patients have a severe form of the disease referred to as “high excreter, recurrent attacks.”

Unfortunately, I am in that 10 percent.

Initially, I only had monthly attacks lasting 3-5 days, starting in my teenage years. Somehow, I managed to complete my education and training and became a physician despite that.

I was not finally diagnosed with AIP until the age of 39, when I suffered a life-threatening porphyria attack. It was almost too late for me at that point, as the attack was so severe that I was no longer able to work or do much at all. There is a one percent mortality rate during each AIP attack and I’ve had hundreds of them, so I’ve been lucky.

My older brother died unexpectedly at the age of 39. Genetic testing of autopsy samples later determined he had the same AIP gene mutation as I have. He died prior to my diagnosis and his gene mutation was discovered as I lay in a hospital bed being told my diagnosis.

LISA KEHRBERG, MD

LISA KEHRBERG, MD

At first, I felt such strong relief that my life was saved and sadness for my brother. But as the months passed, and I became sicker and more in pain, I started feeling a bit jealous of my brother. He was able to at least die with some dignity and is no longer suffering.

The pain that I experience is severe and the only thing effective enough to bring it down to tolerable levels is opioid medication. I’ve tried everything possible. Pain is a subjective experience and only the person experiencing it can know the severity and what helps to improve it.

I have difficulty understanding the response from some in the medical community, government, media and general public, who are so focused on “opioid addiction” that they are unable to see patients like me and empathize with us.

The media’s response has been extremely damaging. It seems people do not understand that addiction is a separate issue from pain management. Why is it that every time prescription pain medication is discussed, it's only in reference to addiction and the opioid epidemic? What about people like me who live with a life-threatening and severely painful disease? Not many reporters seem interested in that side of the story.

I have watched now as countless pain patients have taken their own lives due to discontinuation of their pain medication, often without any warning or consent. Physicians are not the problem in this. Physicians want to help patients. Physicians are being misled, brainwashed and even punished into thinking that prescription opioids usually lead to addiction.

Fortunately for patients like me, palliative care is a growing field and I’m so appreciative of my palliative care physician. I’m frightened for the future, not only for myself, but really for everyone. Pain affects everybody at some point in their lives. Whether it’s you, a family member or a friend -- pain will be there.

Everybody should be afraid of the direction where things are going. Even cancer patients at end of life are being denied appropriate pain treatments. Insurance companies are denying coverage for pain medications and getting away with it. I encourage everyone to please use common sense in this climate where the pendulum has swung too far in the wrong direction.

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Lisa Kehrberg, MD, is a retired family practice physician who specialized in pain management. You can read more about Lisa at the American Porphyria Foundation’s website.

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.

Gluten-Free Diet May Relieve Neuropathy Pain

By Pat Anson, Editor

A small study by British researchers suggests that a strict gluten-free diet may help protect against the nerve pain caused by gluten sensitivity.

"These findings are exciting because it might mean that a relatively simple change in diet could help alleviate painful symptoms tied to gluten neuropathy," said lead author Panagiotis Zis, MD, a senior lecturer at the University of Sheffield. "While our study shows an association between a self-reported gluten-free diet and less pain, it does not show that one causes the other."

Gluten sensitivity has been associated with peripheral neuropathy -- a condition in which peripheral nerves become damaged, causing weakness, numbness and pain in the hands and feet. Diabetic neuropathy can also cause these symptoms, but when diabetes is ruled out and a person is sensitive to gluten – the pain and numbness might be caused by gluten neuropathy.

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The British study involved 60 mostly elderly people who had gluten neuropathy. They were asked about the intensity of their pain, mental health and whether they followed a strict gluten-free diet. About half of the participants had pain with their neuropathy.

People who were following a gluten-free diet were significantly more likely to be free of pain than those who did not. Over half of those without pain were on a gluten-free diet, while 21 percent who were gluten-free still experienced pain.

After adjusting for age, sex and mental health status, researchers found that people following the strict diet were 89 percent less likely to have pain.  

The study also found that people with painful gluten neuropathy scored significantly worse on their mental health assessment, which had a range of zero to 100 with 100 being best. Those with painful gluten neuropathy had an average score of 76, as opposed to the average score of 87 for those with painless gluten neuropathy.

"This study is promising because it shows that a gluten-free diet may help lower the risk of pain for people with gluten neuropathy," Zis said. "More research is needed to confirm these results and to determine whether the gluten-free diet led to the reduction in pain."

Further results of the study will be presented at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Neurology in April.

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, barley, oats and other cereal grains. Gluten is found in many types of food, including bread, pasta, cereal, sauces and salad dressing.

When people with celiac disease eat gluten, it triggers an immune response that attacks the small intestine, causing pain and inflammation. About 1-2% of the population has celiac disease, but most cases go undiagnosed and untreated. Celiac disease is hereditary and runs in families.

People with non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) may also develop gastrointestinal symptoms, as well as headaches, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia and allergies. Abdominal pain and irregular bowel movements are frequently reported with NCGS, which can make it difficult to distinguish from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

Research about the relationship between gluten and chronic pain conditions is rather slim, although there are many anecdotal reports that a gluten free diet reduces pain. In PNN columns, Donna Gregory Burch said going gluten-free helped reduce her fibromyalgia symptoms, while Lisa Ayres found that eliminating gluten quickly relieved her arthritis symptoms.  

Should Gabapentin Be a Controlled Substance?

By Pat Anson, Editor

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration should consider scheduling gabapentin (Neurontin) as a controlled substance, according to researchers who studied the recreational use of the drug in Kentucky.

Gabapentin is a nerve medication approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat epilepsy and post-herpetic neuralgia (shingles), but it is also widely prescribed off-label to treat fibromyalgia, migraines, neuropathy and other chronic pain conditions. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention even recommends gabapentin as a safer alternative to opioids.

Sales of gabapentin have soared in recent years. About 64 million prescriptions were written for gabapentin in the U.S. in 20l6, a 49% increase in just five years.

But drug abusers have also discovered that gabapentin can heighten the effects of heroin, marijuana, cocaine and other substances.

"People are looking for other drugs to substitute for opioids, and gabapentin has filled that place for some," said Rachel Vickers Smith, PhD, an assistant professor at the University of Louisville School of Nursing. “Some have said it gives them a high similar to opioids. It had been easy to get a prescription for gabapentin and it's very cheap."

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Vickers Smith and her colleagues recruited 33 people from Appalachian Kentucky who used gabapentin recreationally and asked them about their drug use. Many reported they started taking gabapentin over 10 years earlier for a legitimate medical condition, such as pain and anxiety. Over time, they started using the drug to help them relax, sleep and get high.

“Focus group responses highlighted the low cost of gabapentin for the purpose of getting high and noted increasing popularity in the community, particularly over the last 2 years. Gabapentin was a prominent drug of abuse in two cohorts of the primarily opioid-using individuals. Providers should be aware of gabapentin’s abuse potential, and a reexamination of the need for scheduling is warranted,” researchers reported in the journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors.

In 2017, Kentucky became the first state to classify gabapentin as a controlled substance, which makes it more difficult for the medication to be prescribed. Ohio’s Substance Abuse Monitoring Network also issued an alert warning of gabapentin misuse across the state.

‘Snake Oil of the 20th Century’

Gabapentin was first approved by the FDA in 1993 and sold by Pfizer under the brand name Neurontin. A few years later, it was so widely prescribed that a top Pfizer executive called gabapentin “the snake oil of the twentieth century” in an email. The company was later fined hundreds of millions of dollars for promoting Neurontin’s off-label use.

"Early on, it was assumed to have no abuse potential," says Vickers Smith. "There's a need to examine it in further detail, especially if prescribing it is going to be encouraged."

Federal health officials have only recently started looking into the misuse and abuse of gabapentinoids, a class of nerve medication that includes gabapentin and pregabalin (Lyrica).

"Our preliminary findings show that abuse of gabapentinoids doesn't yet appear to be widespread, but use continues to increase, especially for gabapentin," FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb, MD, said last week at a conference on opioid prescribing. "We're concerned that abuse and misuse of these drugs may result in serious adverse events such as respiratory depression and death. We want to understand changes in how patients are using these medications."

Gottlieb said FDA investigators are looking at websites and social media where opioid users discuss their use of gabapentinoids.

"We know we need to investigate and respond to signs of abuse as soon as signals emerge. We need to get ahead of these problems," he said.

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 a low potential for addiction and abuse.  

Lyrica and Neurontin Use Triples

By Pat Anson, Editor

The use of gabapentin (Neurontin) and pregabalin (Lyrica) has soared in the United States, with little attention paid to their safety and effectiveness, according to a research letter published in JAMA Internal Medicine.

Gabapentin and pregabalin belong to a class of nerve medication known as gabapentinoids, which are increasingly prescribed as alternatives to opioids in treating neuropathy, fibromyalgia and other types of chronic pain.

In an analysis of health data for nearly 350,000 patients, researchers found that the use of gabapentinoids more than tripled in the past decade, from 1.2% of patients in 2002 to 3.9% in 2015.

Use of the drugs was concentrated in older patients with numerous other health problems, who were often co-prescribed opioids or benzodiazepines, a class of anti-anxiety medication.

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“The combination of a dearth of long-term safety data, small effect sizes, concern for increased risk of overdose in combination with opioid use, and high rates of off-label prescribing, which are associated with high rates of adverse effects, raises concern about the levels of gabapentinoid use,” wrote lead researcher Michael Johansen, MD, of OhioHealth, a large non-profit health system based in Ohio.

“While individual clinical scenarios can be challenging, caution should be advised in the use of gabapentinoids, particularly for those individuals who are long-term opioid users, given the lack of proven long-term efficacy and the known and unknown risks of gabapentinoid use.”

JAMA INTERNAL MEDICINE

JAMA INTERNAL MEDICINE

Johansen’s research adds to a growing body of evidence that pregabalin and gabapentin are overprescribed and being abused. A recent study by Canadian researchers found that there was “no clear rationale” for the off-label use of the drugs and warned that they have a “significant risk of adverse effects” such as dizziness, fatigue and diminished mental activity.

Lyrica (pregabalin) and Neurontin (gabapentin) are both made by Pfizer and are two of the company’s top selling drugs, generating billions of dollars in annual sales. Lyrica is approved by the FDA to treat diabetic nerve pain, fibromyalgia, post-herpetic neuralgia caused by shingles and spinal cord injuries; while Neurontin is approved to treat epilepsy and post-herpetic neuralgia. Both drugs are also widely prescribed off label to treat back pain, depression, migraine and other conditions.

Sales of pregabalin and gabapentin have risen steadily in recent years, in part because of CDC prescribing guidelines that recommend the two drugs as alternatives to opioid pain medication. About 64 million prescriptions were written for gabapentin in the U.S. in 20l6, a 49% increase in just five years.

“We believe… that gabapentinoids are being prescribed excessively — partly in response to the opioid epidemic,” Christopher Goodman, MD, and Allan Brett, MD, recently wrote in a commentary published in The New England Journal of Medicine. “We suspect that clinicians who are desperate for alternatives to opioids have lowered their threshold for prescribing gabapentinoids to patients with various types of acute, subacute, and chronic noncancer pain.

Gabapentinoids are increasingly being used recreationally by addicts who have found the medications enhance the effects of heroin and other opioids. Lyrica and Neurontin have been linked to heroin overdoses in the United Kingdom, where prescriptions for both drugs have soared in recent years. 

Painkillers Raise Risk of Obesity and Hypertension

By Pat Anson, Editor

Commonly prescribed painkillers such as opioids and gabapentinoids  -- a class of pain medication that includes Lyrica and Neurontin – significantly raise the risk of obesity and high blood pressure, according to a large new study published in PLOS ONE.

British researchers analyzed health data on over 133,000 people, comparing the Body Mass Index (BMI), waist circumference, blood pressure and sleeping habits of patients taking pain relievers to those who did not. The study is believed to be the largest to look at the effects of painkillers on overall health.

“In the last two decades there has been a significant increase in the number of people being prescribed both opioid and non-opioid medications to treat chronic pain,” said lead author Sophie Cassidy, PhD,  a research associate at the Institute of Cellular Medicine, Newcastle University. “We already know that opiates are dependency-forming but this study also found patients taking opiates have the worst health. Obesity rates are much higher and the patients reported sleeping poorly.”

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Those taking opioids were 95% more likely to be obese, 82% more like to have a “very high” waist circumference and 63% more likely to have hypertension compared to the control group.  

“There could be a number of possible mechanisms by which opioids might be associated with weight gain. Sedation might decrease physical activity and therefore reduce energy expenditure, those in our cohort taking opiates were less active, and those taking both opiates and other sedative drugs were the least active. Opioids have also been shown to alter taste perception with a craving for sugar and sweet foods described,” Cassidy wrote.

“These results add further weight to calls for these chronic pain medications to be prescribed for shorter periods.”

Patients who took gabapentinoids were also more likely to be obese, have a bigger waist and higher blood pressure compared to those not taking the drugs.

Gabapentinoids are commonly prescribed as alternatives to opioids to treat neuropathy, shingles and fibromyalgia, although many patients complain about side effects such as weight gain, depression and anxiety.

As PNN has reported, gabapentinoids are also coming under scrutiny because they are increasingly being abused. Lyrica (pregabalin) and Neurontin (gabapentin) are being reclassified as controlled “Class C” substances in the UK, following a spike in the number of deaths involving the medications.

Last week, the West Virginia Board of Pharmacy designated gabapentin as a “drug of concern,” after overdoses in the state involving gabapentin rose from 36 deaths in 2012 to 106 in 2016.  Ohio, Pennsylvania and Kentucky have also reported increases in fatal overdoses involving gabapentin.