Discovery of Brain Protein Could Lead to New Chronic Pain Treatments

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Researchers have identified a protein in the brain that appears to play a prominent role in the maintenance of long-term pain -- a discovery that could lead to new treatments that stop short-term acute pain from progressing to chronic pain.

The protein RGS4 (Regulator of G protein signaling 4) is found in brain circuits that process pathological pain, mood and motivation.

"Our research reveals that RGS4 actions contribute to the transition from acute and sub-acute pain to pathological pain states and to the maintenance of pain," says Venetia Zachariou, PhD, a professor in The Friedman Brain Institute at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City.

"Because chronic pain states affect numerous neurochemical processes and single-target drugs are unlikely to work, it's exciting to have discovered a multifunctional protein that can be targeted to disrupt the maintenance of pain."

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In studies on genetically modified mice, Zachariou and her colleagues found that genetic inactivation of RGS4 did not affect acute pain, but it promoted recovery from nerve injuries, chemotherapy-induced neuropathy and peripheral inflammation. Mice lacking RGS4 developed all the expected symptoms of a nerve injury, but recovered within 3 weeks and returned to physical activity.

The transition from acute to chronic pain is accompanied by numerous adaptations in immune, glial and neuronal cells, many of which are still not well understood. Chronic pain patients experience a number of debilitating symptoms besides pain, such as sensory deficits, depression and loss of motivation

Researchers believe future drugs that target RGS4 could prevent acute pain from transitioning to chronic pain. Currently available medications for chronic pain only treat the symptoms – not the underlying condition – and have major side effects.

Dr. Zachariou's laboratory is conducting further investigation into the actions of RGS4 in the spinal cord and mood-regulating areas of the brain to better understand the mechanism by which the protein affects sensory and pain symptoms.

Their findings are published online in The Journal of Neuroscience.

The Complex Relationship Between Alcohol and Pain

(Editor’s note: A recent PNN survey found that nearly 20% of chronic pain patients used alcohol for pain relief. Many do so because they lost access to opioid medication. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) recently published this article on pain and alcohol, and invited PNN to republish it.)

The relationship between alcohol and pain is a complicated one. It is a common belief that alcohol dulls pain, yet research shows that sometimes alcohol can make pain worse.

Understanding the complex relationship between alcohol and pain is an important area of research for NIAAA. In 2016, about 20 percent of adults (50 million people) in the United States had chronic pain, defined as pain most days in the previous 6 months. Recent studies suggest that around 1 in 4 adults in chronic pain reports self-medicating with alcohol, and 43–73 percent of people with alcohol use disorder (AUD) report experiencing chronic pain.

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An improved understanding of the effects of alcohol on pain, the role of pain in alcohol misuse, and potential interactions between alcohol and opioids during pain treatment hopefully will improve treatment outcomes for patients in pain.

Alcohol has been found to alleviate physical pain, but it requires doses consistent with binge drinking to do so. Binge drinking is defined as drinking enough to bring blood alcohol concentration (BAC) levels to 0.08 percent, which typically occurs after 4 drinks for women and 5 drinks for men in about 2 hours.

A recent analysis of the findings from 18 studies on alcohol and pain concluded that a BAC of 0.08 percent produces a small increase in pain threshold and a reduction in pain intensity. These findings could help explain why some people with chronic pain drink excessively.

Unfortunately, reaching BAC levels this high also is associated with unintentional injuries, violence, traffic fatalities, and other consequences. And long-term excessive drinking makes physical pain worse. In a group of 30 men in treatment for AUD, sensitivity to pain increased early in abstinence.

People also sometimes use alcohol in an effort to cope with emotional pain. Unfortunately, as with physical pain, the temporary reprieve alcohol might offer gives way to an increase in emotional pain when the alcohol wears off.

Chronic alcohol misuse can lead to the emergence of a negative emotional state, known as hyperkatifeia, in between episodes of drinking. The resulting irritability, dysphoria, and anxiety fuel further alcohol use. As with physical pain, drinking alcohol to cope with emotional pain makes the situation worse. (For more information, see “Alcohol and ‘Deaths of Despair.’”)

Opioid analgesics commonly are prescribed to treat physical pain and often are misused to cope with emotional pain. Used separately, alcohol and opioids can cause overdose deaths by suppressing areas in the brain stem that control breathing. Using alcohol and opioids together amplifies the danger. Research suggests that alcohol plays a role in around 1 in 5 deaths from opioid overdoses.

Because the mechanisms by which alcohol and opioids reduce physical and emotional pain overlap, regular use of one drug diminishes the effects of the other. For instance, when researchers examined opioid pain medication use after abdominal surgery in more than 4,000 patients, they found that frequent alcohol consumption was associated with increased opioid use for pain control.

Similarly, in rats allowed to drink alcohol for 8 weeks, opioids became less effective at reducing physical pain. Withdrawal from opioids, like withdrawal from alcohol, leads to the emotional misery of hyperkatifeia.

As part of the National Institutes of Health Helping to End Addiction Long-Term (HEAL) initiative, NIAAA is encouraging studies to develop and validate biomarkers of comorbid alcohol misuse and chronic pain and that address alcohol misuse in the context of chronic pain management.

NIAAA also encourages research on the impact of alcohol and sleep disturbances on pain through a new funding opportunity. These efforts, among others, should shed light on how alcohol affects pain and vice versa and could have implications for both treating AUD and managing chronic pain.

Opioid Breathalyzer Test Developed

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Chronic pain patients have grown accustomed to having their urine -- and sometimes their blood and hair – analyzed for opioids and other drugs.

Someday soon they could be taking opioid breathalyzer tests.

In a small pilot study, researchers at the University of California, Davis have developed and successfully tested a device that collects minute droplets in breath that can be analyzed in a laboratory for morphine, hydromorphone (Dilaudid) and other opioids.

“Exhaled breath collection represents a painless, easily available, and non-invasive technique that would enable clinicians to make quick and well-informed decisions,” said lead author Cristina Davis, PhD, chair of the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at UC Davis. "There are a few ways we think this could impact society."

While ostensibly developed to help doctors care for patients and monitor their drug use, Davis and her colleagues say opioid breathalyzer tests could someday be used in addiction treatment and by law enforcement during roadside field sobriety tests.

They reported their findings in the Journal of Breath Research.

IMAGE COURTESY OF CRISTINA DAVIS, UC DAVIS

IMAGE COURTESY OF CRISTINA DAVIS, UC DAVIS

“Breath offers the opportunity to collect a diagnostic biospecimen non-invasively and, eventually, a way to obtain near real-time results almost anywhere. Though this study did not utilize portable analytic systems, future breath drug detection platforms used to identify targeted compounds will be available for point-of-care use. This will enable opioid detection in many settings including roadside, drug treatment facilities, field emergency response, home, and rural areas with limited access to healthcare,” Davis wrote.

Nine patients receiving opioids for cancer pain at the UC Davis Medical Center participated in the pilot study, along with three healthy people used as a control group. Participants exhaled through a glass tube surrounded by dry ice that captured and froze breath condensate. The breath samples was then analyzed in a lab using mass spectrometry and compared to opioid metabolites in blood samples and in doses given to patients.

"We can see both the original drug and metabolites in exhaled breath," Davis said.

Fully validating the breath test will require more data from larger groups of patients. UC Davis researchers are working towards the development of real-time, point-of-care breath tests that can be broadly used to detect opioids and other drugs.

Point-of-care (POC) urine drug tests are widely used by doctors to screen patients for illicit drugs and to make sure they’re taking medications as prescribed. Physicians like the immunoassay test strips because they can be performed in their offices, are inexpensive and give immediate results.

However, as PNN has reported, POC test results are wrong about half the time – and frequently give false positive or false negative results for drugs like marijuana, oxycodone and methadone.  Experts say doctors should never base a treatment decision or discharge a patient solely on the results of one POC test, and that confirmatory testing should always be performed by a laboratory. 

Can Prayer Ease Chronic Pain?

By Dr. Lynn Webster, PNN Columnist

Does prayer lead to healing? Many religious people around the world believe that it does. According to the science, it may.

Medical researchers have looked into the effects of religion and spirituality on chronic health conditions, including chronic pain, for many years. The research has produced vastly different results. According to a review of studies in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry, prayer may contribute to healing, may worsen health, or may make no difference at all.

Helen Fosam, PhD, says in Clinical Pain Advisor, "a positive emotional state and a positive expectation of pain relief can lower pain and enhance clinical effect of treatment."

So if you believe prayer can ease your pain, it may happen.

Pain Is a Spiritual Condition

As I say in my book, The Painful Truth, pain is a bio-psycho-social-spiritual condition. However, it might make more sense to reverse the order and put “spiritual” first because, for many people, the spiritual dimension is the most important.

More times than I can remember, I’ve known people in pain to cry out to God for mercy, kneel in silent prayer, cross themselves or finger their rosary, practice yoga or meditation, wear crosses or angel pins or crystals, express a longing for heaven, mention attending religious services, or tell me about their belief in God.

Even religious skeptics who are in pain sometimes pray for themselves or ask others to pray for them.

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The simple fact is that most people have a tendency to turn to God and faith when they are in need, including when they are in pain. Along with most other pain specialists, I have come to see this as generally a good thing, because relating to a God or a perceived spiritual reality beyond oneself can affect one’s pain experience positively.

Prayer As Meditation

Prayer is a specialized form of meditation. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, meditation "may be helpful for a variety of conditions, such as high blood pressure, certain psychological disorders, and pain."

People who have faith in a higher power and turn to prayer may be availing themselves of the medical benefits of meditation.

Of course, not everyone who is in pain is religious or spiritual -- or wants to be. I’ve known many people with pain who have experienced a substantial increase in their life satisfaction without recourse to spiritual beliefs and practices. Some of them have practiced meditation, and some of them have not.

But if we’re interested in what promotes healing for those enduring long-term pain, we can’t ignore the interaction between belief and pain.

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Lynn R. Webster, MD, is a vice president of scientific affairs for PRA Health Sciences and consults with the pharmaceutical industry. He is author of the award-winning book, The Painful Truth,” and co-producer of the documentary,It Hurts Until You Die.” You can find him on Twitter: @LynnRWebsterMD. 

The information in this column 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.

Chronic Pain Accelerates Dementia

By Dr. Lynn Webster, PNN Columnist

In 2017, JAMA Internal Medicine published a study that found older people with chronic pain experience faster declines in memory and are more likely to develop dementia.  While prior research had shown a link between chronic pain and brain damage, this was one of the first studies to specifically suggest that chronic pain can cause dementia.

The authors reported that people aged 60 and over with persistent pain experienced a 9.2% more rapid decline in memory score when compared to people of the same age without chronic pain. This means that people with chronic pain may experience more difficulty in managing their finances, medications and social connections.

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Dementia is a chronic condition of the brain that involves memory, personality and judgment. It is not a disease; it is a symptom of one or more diseases.

There are many types of dementia. Alzheimer’s disease is considered to be the most common.

Dementia usually worsens over time if the underlying disease remains static or progresses, as is the case with many chronic pain conditions.

There are an estimated 20 million Americans with high impact (the most severe) chronic pain who may be experiencing accelerated decline in cognition due to their pain. The amount of dementia appears to be associated with the severity and duration of chronic pain. Undertreated or untreated chronic pain may accelerate dementia.

Chronic pain affects an even larger percentage of elderly adults (one in three) than the general population. Since the prevalence of chronic pain increases with age, the probability of experiencing dementia increases as well. However, the reasons for that go beyond aging itself.

Seniors are more likely to take multiple medications that can contribute to mental confusion. On average, elderly people take five or more prescriptions. They may also use over-the-counter medications, which adds to potential drug-associated mental compromise.

Opioids, in particular, have been implicated in cognitive impairment. However, a study published in 2016 suggests there is no difference in cognitive decline between people on opioids and those on nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. The study's implication is that pain, not opioids, leads to cognitive impairment.

Brain Fog

Chronic pain appears to affect the function and structure of the hippocampus. This is the region of the brain that involves learning, memory, and emotional processing.

One explanation for the mental decline associated with chronic pain is that various areas of the brain compete for attention. Attentional impairment compromises memory by diverting attention to the areas of the brain processing pain. In effect, the brain is multi-tasking and favoring the processing of pain over cognition. This may, in part, explain the clinical phrase “brain fog.”

The Australian Broadcasting Company's "All in the Mind" website explains that pain damages the brain in several ways, including a change in the size of the thalamus and a decrease in the amount of a neurotransmitter (gamma-aminobutyric acid) the brain produces. In other words, chronic pain changes the brain structurally and functionally.

The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain responsible for executive functions, such as cognition, social behavior, personality, and decision-making. It is also the part of the brain that modulates pain.

According to "All in the Mind," some researchers believe that chronic pain decreases the volume of the prefrontal cortex. Over time, brains damaged by pain lose the ability to handle pain — along with some of the personality attributes that make us who we are.

Brain Damage Can Be Reversed

The good news is that the brain damage caused by chronic pain can be reversed, at least to some extent. Unfortunately, the elderly are less likely to recover from dementia caused by chronic pain as compared with younger patients.

If pain is adequately treated, the brain may be able to regain its ability to function normally. A 2009 study of patients with chronic pain due to hip osteoarthritis showed reversal of brain changes when their pain was adequately treated. 

People who don’t have their acute pain managed are more likely to develop chronic pain. It is postulated that the changes in the brain that occur with chronic pain begin with the onset of acute pain. There is also some evidence that an individual’s genes may influence who is at greatest risk for developing brain damage from chronic pain and who is least likely to recover from it. 

Many people have criticized the concept of assessing pain as the 5th vital sign, and have called it a contributing factor for the opioid crisis. As I have said, pain may not be a vital sign, but it is vital that we assess it. Asking patients about their pain is critical to providing interventions that can mitigate the consequences of undertreated pain, including dementia. 

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Lynn R. Webster, MD, is a vice president of scientific affairs for PRA Health Sciences and consults with the pharmaceutical industry. He is author of the award-winning book, The Painful Truth,” and co-producer of the documentary,It Hurts Until You Die.” You can find him on Twitter: @LynnRWebsterMD. 

The information in this column 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.

Fibromyalgia Researchers, It’s Time to Stop Watching the Flowers Grow!

By Donna Gregory Burch

As a fibromyalgia warrior and blogger, I read a lot of articles about new research findings. I continue to be amazed by how much time and money are wasted by researching the obvious or studying the same treatments over and over again.

After all, how many times do we need to prove meditation can reduce fibromyalgia pain? Didn’t we figure that out years ago?

I really thought I’d seen it all until an article entitled, “The Power of Flowers May Ease Fibromyalgia Symptoms,” showed up in my inbox last month.

As I read it, I literally said out loud: “Are you kidding me?”

In case you haven’t read the article, it summarizes a recent Israeli study in which 61 women with fibromyalgia completed a 12-week flower design course presented by a trained florist. At the end of the course, Tel-Aviv University researchers reported “quite amazing” improvements in the women’s fibromyalgia symptoms.

Yep, you read that right: The researchers claim arranging a few daisies and baby’s breath in a vase actually improves fibromyalgia.

Now, I don’t doubt for a minute that flower arranging is relaxing and could have a calming effect on the central nervous system. That, in turn, could lead to a reduction in pain and other fibro symptoms.

But so could watching butterflies or painting rocks.

While I think it’s wonderful researchers are looking at non-pharmaceutical treatments for fibromyalgia, studies like this completely invalidate the seriousness of our condition. These types of studies make it seem like almost anything will fix fibro, and that is just not reality.

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Because of the stigma of fibromyalgia, we already struggle to prove to our doctors and loved ones that we’re really sick. What do you think the average person is going to think when they read flower arranging helps fibromyalgia? While I’m sure the researchers had good intentions, this study makes a complete mockery and joke out of an extremely painful, life-sucking condition.

In my mind, I think back to all of those doctors who tried to give me anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications when I complained about unexplained pain, fatigue, bladder urgency, neuropathy and a long list of other symptoms. The message was clear: “It’s all in your head. You’re just a stressed out, middle-aged woman who needs to chill out.”

What happens when these same doctors read the Israeli study? I can envision them now referring their patients to the nearest community college for classes on cupcake baking and basket-weaving. As if we weren’t frustrated enough with the conventional medical system!

The truth is we don’t need more BS fibromyalgia studies like this one. We need researchers to get serious! We need them to take a deep dive into the minds and bodies of fibromyalgia patients and figure out what causes us to feel like a three-day-old warmed over microwave dinner.

We need real solutions – treatments that get to the root cause of our illness – not a new hobby!

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Donna Gregory Burch lives with fibromyalgia and chronic Lyme disease. Donna covers news, treatments, research and practical tips for living with fibromyalgia and Lyme on her blog, FedUpwithFatigue.com. You can also find her on Facebook and Twitter.

Donna is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared online and in newspapers and magazines throughout Virginia, Delaware and Pennsylvania. She lives in Delaware with her husband and their many fur babies.

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.)