Supplements Often Tainted by Hidden Drugs

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Hundreds of dietary supplements – including some marketed to relieve joint and muscle pain – are tainted with pharmaceutical drugs, according to a new study published in JAMA Network Open.  

Researchers with the California Department of Public Health looked at 746 supplements that the Food and Drug Administration found to be adulterated from 2007 to 2016. About half of the supplements remained on the market, even after the FDA found they contained potentially harmful drugs.

"The FDA didn't even bother to recall more than half of the potentially hazardous supplements," Pieter Cohen, MD, a Harvard Medical School professor told NPR. "How could it be that our premier public health agency spends the time and money to detect these hidden ingredients and then doesn't take the next obvious step, which is to ensure that they are removed from the marketplace?"

Over half of American adults take dietary supplements that contain minerals, vitamins, herbs, fish oil and other “natural” substances.  Most of the adulterated supplements were marketed for sexual enhancement, weight loss or muscle building.

Of the 14 supplements that were promoted as treatments for arthritis, muscle and joint pain, osteoporosis or other painful conditions, half contained diclofenac, a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) and five contained dexamethasone, a steroid used to treat inflammation.

One supplement promoted as a treatment for arthritis – Pro ArthMax -- was found to contain four different NSAIDs, as well as a muscle relaxant and a non-narcotic pain reliever that was never approved for use in the United States. The manufacturer of Pro ArthMax voluntarily recalled the supplement in 2014 after being warned by the FDA.   

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Cohen chided the agency for relying on voluntary recalls to get tainted supplements off the market and accused the FDA of “dereliction of duty” in a JAMA commentary. He called on Congress to change the federal law that exempts the $35 billion dollar supplement industry from pre-market safety and clinical studies that are required for pharmaceutical drugs.   

“More than FDA action will be required to ensure that all adulterated supplements are effectively and swiftly removed from the market,” Cohen wrote. “The process that the FDA is required to follow to remove supplements from the marketplace (is) cumbersome and time-consuming; nevertheless, the agency’s failure to aggressively use all available tools to remove pharmaceutically adulterated supplements from commerce leaves consumers’ health at risk.”

Dietary supplements that are tainted with hidden drugs may interact with other medications and raise the risk of adverse events, particularly when consumers already may be using NSAID-containing products.  

Many Invasive Surgeries No Better Than Placebo

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

In an age when doctors are urged not to prescribe opioids, many patients are being told to have surgery or other invasive procedures to treat their chronic pain.

But a systematic review of 25 clinical trials found little evidence that invasive surgeries are more effective than placebo or sham procedures in reducing low back and knee pain. The study was published in the journal Pain Medicine.

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"Our findings raise several questions for clinicians, researchers, and policy-makers. First, can we justify widespread use of these procedures without rigorous testing?" said lead author Wayne Jonas, MD, a Professor of Family Medicine at Georgetown University School of Medicine.

“Given their high cost and safety concerns, more rigorous studies are required before invasive procedures are routinely used for patients with chronic pain.”

The invasive procedures that were analyzed include arthroscopic, endoscopic and laparoscopic surgeries, as well as radiofrequency ablations, laser treatments and other interventions.

In each study, researchers also performed sham or placebo procedures on a control group where they faked the invasive procedure. Patients did not know which intervention (real or sham) they received. Researchers then compared the patients’ pain intensity, disability, health-related quality of life, use of medication, adverse events, and other factors.

They found that reduction in disability did not differ between the two groups three months after the procedures or at six months. Seven of the studies on low back pain and three on knee osteoarthritis showed no difference in pain intensity at six months compared with the sham procedures.

“There is little evidence for the specific efficacy beyond sham for invasive procedures in chronic pain. A moderate amount of evidence does not support the use of invasive procedures as compared with sham procedures for patients with chronic back or knee pain,” said Jonas.

Invasive treatments are being increasingly used as an alternative to opioids. Americans spent an estimated $45 billion on surgery for chronic low back pain and $41 billion on arthroplasty for knee pain in 2014.

Several previous studies have also questioned the value of arthroplasty. Over 850,000 arthroscopic surgeries are performed every year to relieve knee pain in the UK and the United States. But a 2015 study published in the BMJ questioned the evidence behind the surgery and said it provides only “small inconsequential benefit.”

Positive Results for New Osteoarthritis Drug

By Pat Anson, Editor

Two pharmaceutical companies have announced positive results from a Phase 3 study of an experimental non-opioid pain reliever that has a history of safety concerns.

Teva and Regeneron are jointly developing fasinumab as a treatment for chronic pain from osteoarthritis of the knee and hip. The companies say patients treated for 16 weeks with fasinumab injections had significantly less pain and improved function compared to a placebo.

"We are encouraged by these data and look forward to advancing our pivotal Phase 3 fasinumab program in patients with osteoarthritis of the knee or hip, who currently have very limited therapeutic choices to treat their chronic pain, other than with non-steriodal anti-inflammatory drugs or opioids," said George Yancopoulos, MD, President and Chief Scientific Officer of Regeneron.

Fasinumab is a humanized antibody that targets nerve growth factor (NGF), a protein that increases in the body because of injury, inflammation or chronic pain. Fasinumab binds to NGF and inhibits pain signals from muscles, skin and organs from reaching the brain.

Teva and Regeneron say fasinumab was “generally well tolerated” in the Phase 3 study, with similar adverse events (AEs) as in previous trials. Treatment was discontinued due to AEs in 6 percent of the fasinumab patients, about the same as the placebo group. The companies plan to present further details at an upcoming medical conference.

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Regeneron recently halted high-dose trials of fasinumab because the risk of harm outweighed the benefits of the drug. There is some concern that NGF antibodies work too well and encourage osteoarthritis patients to become more active, which accelerates joint deterioration. No cases of joint damage were observed in the current study.

Regeneron and Teva are currently enrolling osteoarthritis patients in three additional Phase 3 clinical trials, including one assessing the long-term safety of fasinumab and two trials comparing fasinumab to standard pain therapies.

There is intense competition about drug companies to develop non-opioid pain relievers that don’t have the risk of addiction and overdose. Pfizer and Eli Lilly are jointly developing a similar NGF inhibitor called tanezumab, which was given fast track designation by the FDA in 2017 to speed its development.

Like fasinumab, there are safety concerns about tanezumab. The FDA ordered a partial halt to clinical studies of tanezumab in 2010 after Pfizer said a small number of osteoarthritis patients taking the drug needed joint replacements. Another safety issue arose in 2012 because the drug caused “adverse changes in the sympathetic nervous system of mature animals.”  Most clinical studies of tanezumab did not resume until 2015.

Positive Findings for New Osteoarthritis Drug

By Pat Anson, Editor

Pfizer and Eli Lilly have announced positive findings in treating osteoarthritis pain with an experimental non-opioid drug that has a history of safety concerns.  

Tanezumab is a humanized monoclonal antibody that targets nerve growth factor (NGF), a protein that increases in the body because of injury, inflammation or chronic pain. Tanezumab binds to NGF and inhibits pain signals from muscles, skin and organs from reaching the brain.

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In the 16-week clinical study, osteoarthritis patients who were given two injections of tanezumab had significant improvement in their pain, physical function and assessment of their symptoms compared to a placebo. Osteoarthritis is a joint disorder that leads to thinning of cartilage and progressive joint damage.

“There is a substantial need for innovative new treatment options for osteoarthritis, as many patients are unable to find relief with currently available medicines and continue to suffer,” Ken Verburg of Pfizer Global Product Development said in a statement.

“We are encouraged by these results, which speak to the potential of tanezumab as a non-opioid treatment option for pain reduction and improvement in physical function.”

Preliminary safety data showed that tanezumab was generally well tolerated, with about 1% of patients discontinuing treatment due to adverse events. Rapidly progressive osteoarthritis was observed in about 1.5% tanezumab-treated patients, but none in the placebo arm.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted “fast track” designation to tanezumab last year to help speed its development as a new treatment for osteoarthritis and chronic low back pain.

Ironically, it was the FDA that slowed the development of NGF inhibitors in 2010 after Pfizer reported some osteoarthritis patients receiving tanezumab experienced worsening of their disease and needed joint replacements. Another safety issue arose in 2012 because the drug caused “adverse changes in the sympathetic nervous system of mature animals.”  Most clinical studies of tanezumab did not resume until 2015.

“We look forward to continuing to advance tanezumab in our ongoing global Phase 3 development program, which includes six studies in approximately 7,000 patients with osteoarthritis, chronic low back pain and cancer pain,” said Christi Shaw, senior vice president of Eli Lilly. In studies to date, tanezumab has not demonstrated a risk of addiction, misuse or dependence.

Regeneron recently halted high-dose trials of fasinumab, another NGF inhibitor, because the risk of harm outweighed the benefits of the drug. There is some concern that NGF antibodies work too well and encourage osteoarthritis patients to become more active, which accelerates joint deterioration.

Can a Junk Food Diet Cause Osteoarthritis?

By Steve Weakley

Does what’s in your gut influence the pain in your knees? New research on mice at the University of Rochester Medical School suggests that it might, but the results are far from conclusive.

Researchers fed one group of laboratory mice a high fat diet that included red meat and milkshakes, and another group of mice a healthier low-fat diet. Both groups of mice had their knees surgically damaged to mimic the effects of osteoarthritis -- “wear and tear” arthritis that is often associated with age, obesity or injury.

Twelve weeks of the high fat diet made the mice obese and diabetic and led to more seriously damaged joints. It also created an imbalance of harmful bacteria in their digestive tracts. 

One group of the fat mice were then given a supplement containing the prebiotic fiber oligofructose (also available as an over-the-counter probiotic).  The researchers said the supplement did not cause the mice to lose weight, but it did greatly improve their blood sugar levels and the balance of healthy bacteria in their gut.  More importantly, the study concludes, the mice that were given the supplement also had healthier joints than the control group.

The University of Rochester study concluded that prebiotics and the correction of gut bacteria might help protect against osteoarthritis caused by obesity. And one of the researchers, Dr. Robert Mooney, told Forbes that the study suggests osteoarthritis may be accelerated or even caused by inflammation.

"That reinforces the idea that osteoarthritis is another secondary complication of obesity--just like diabetes, heart disease, and stroke, which all have inflammation as part of their cause," said Mooney. "Perhaps, they all share a similar root, and the microbiome (digestive bacteria) might be that common root."

However a critique by Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) said that conclusion might be premature.

“It's presumptuous to conclude that an imbalance of gut bacteria could be directly linked to risk of osteoarthritis in humans from the results of a study in mice with artificially induced knee damage. As such, there's no compelling evidence that prebiotics would prevent or reverse osteoarthritis,” the NHS said.

“Aiming for a healthy weight through a good diet combined with physical activity is a better strategy for reducing the risk of osteoarthritis (as well as many other long-term conditions) than taking prebiotics to try to combat the effects of a poor diet. “

Osteoarthritis is a joint disorder that leads to progressive joint damage. It can affect any joint in the body but is most commonly felt in weight bearing joints such as the knees and hips. Nearly 40 percent of Americans over the age of 45 have some degree of knee osteoarthritis.

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Previous studies have also found a link between a high fat diet and osteoarthritis.  Australian researchers reported last year that a diet rich in animal fats, butter and palm oil weakens cartilage and produces osteoarthritis-like changes in the knee.

"We also found changes in the bone under the cartilage on a diet rich in saturated fat," said Professor Yin Xiao of Queensland University of Technology’s Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation. "Our findings suggest that it's not wear and tear but diet that has a lot to do with the onset of osteoarthritis.”

The University of Rochester researchers hope to include humans in future studies on the effects of diet on osteoarthritis.

What the JAMA Opioid Study Didn’t Find

By Roger Chriss, Columnist

A recent opioid study published in the Journal Of the American Medical Association (JAMA)  evaluated pain management in patients with hip and knee osteoarthritis and low back pain.

The study by VA researcher Erin Krebs, MD, and colleagues found that “treatment with opioids was not superior to treatment with nonopioid medications for improving pain-related function over 12 months.”  

That finding was widely and erroneously reported in the news media as meaning that opioids are ineffective for all types of chronic pain.

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But the most fascinating result of the study – the one not being reported -- is what wasn’t found. The 108 people in the study who took opioids for a year did not develop signs of opioid misuse, abuse or addiction, and did not develop opioid-induced hyperalgesia – a heightened sensitivity to pain.

And no one died of an overdose.

This is significant because it runs counter to commonly held beliefs in the medical profession about the risks of prescription opioids. Here are a few recent examples:

“Opioids are very addictive and their effectiveness wanes as people habituate to the medication,” Carl Noe, MD, director of a pain clinic at the University of Texas Medical Center wrote in an op/ed in The Texas Tribune.

Don Teater, MD, a family physician in North Carolina, also believes that people on long-term opioid therapy experience dose escalation, which leads to hyperalgesia. “Opioids cause permanent brain changes,” Teater told USA Today.

Krebs herself has made similar comments. "Within a few weeks or months of taking an opioid on a daily basis, your body gets used to that level of opioid, and you need more and more to get the same level of effect,” she told NPR.

But the Krebs study didn’t see any of that happen.

Krebs and colleagues closely monitored the 108 people in the opioid arm of the study, using “multiple approaches to evaluate for potential misuse, including medical record surveillance for evidence of ‘doctor-shopping’ (seeking medication from multiple physicians), diversion, substance use disorder, or death.” They also had participants complete the “Addiction Behavior Checklist” and assessed their alcohol and drug use with surveys and screening tools.

What did Krebs find in the opioid group after 12 months of treatment?

“No deaths, ‘doctor-shopping,’ diversion, or opioid use disorder diagnoses were detected,” she reported. “There were no significant differences in adverse outcomes or potential misuse measures.”

Health-related quality of life and mental health in the opioid group did not significantly differ from the non-opioid group – and their anxiety levels actually improved.  

These are observational findings in the study. They were not a part of what Krebs and colleagues were specifically trying to measure. As the study notes: “This trial did not have sufficient statistical power to estimate rates of death, opioid use disorder, or other serious harms associated with prescribed opioids.”

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But they are valuable observations. They note what didn’t happen in the study. Over 100 people were put on opioid therapy for a year, and none of them showed any signs of dose escalation or opioid-induced hyperalgesia, or any evidence of opioid misuse, abuse or addiction.

Krebs told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that this “could reflect the fact that the study did not enroll patients with addiction histories, and because the VA provided close supervision to all participants during the yearlong study.”

In other words, Krebs and colleagues used an opioid prescribing protocol that achieved an admirable level of patient safety. Their approach is similar to what many pain management practices currently pursue and what the CDC and various state guidelines recommend: Risk assessment before initial prescribing and careful monitoring over time.

The Krebs study provides rare and detailed observations of what happens when people are put on long-term opioid therapy. A lot of what is claimed about dose escalation, opioid-induced hyperalgesia, and misuse or abuse didn't happen at all.

This outcome demonstrates that long-term opioid therapy can be safe and effective, and may be useful in treating other chronic conditions, from intractable neuropathies to painful genetic disorders. That’s worth reporting too, isn’t it?

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Roger Chriss lives with Ehlers Danlos syndrome and is a proud member of the Ehlers-Danlos Society. Roger is a technical consultant in Washington state, where he specializes in mathematics and research.

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.

Is JAMA Opioid Study Based on Junk Science?

By Pat Anson, Editor

You may have read about a research study published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), which compared the effectiveness of opioid and non-opioid medications in treating chronic pain. 

The yearlong study of 240 patients found that opioids were not superior to pain relievers like acetaminophen and ibuprofen in treating chronic back pain or hip and knee pain caused by osteoarthritis.  Pain improved for 41% of the patients who took opioids, compared to 54% in the non-opioid group.  

It’s an interesting study – one of the few to look at the effectiveness of any pain relievers long term – but some critics are questioning the study’s methodology and the alleged anti-opioid bias of its lead author, Erin Krebs, MD, a researcher for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

First let’s look at some of the news coverage the study is getting.

“Opioids Don’t Treat Chronic Pain Any Better Than Ibuprofen” reads the headline in Newsweek, an article that never mentions the JAMA study was limited to patients with back pain or osteoarthritis.

“Opioids Don’t Beat Other Medications for Chronic Pain” was the headline in NPR.com, while the Chicago Tribune went with “Opioids no better than common painkillers for treating chronic pain.”

The Tribune article included a quote from one of the co-authors of the CDC opioid guidelines. "The fact that opioids did worse is really pretty astounding," said Roger Chou, MD. "It calls into question our beliefs about the benefits of opioids."

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Notice the news coverage strongly suggests that opioids are ineffective for all types of chronic pain – not just back pain and osteoarthritis.  Patients living with chronic pain from arachnoiditis, trigeminal neuralgia or some other intractable pain condition would probably disagree about that. And they'd find the idea of taking ibuprofen laughable, if not infuriating. But no one asked for their opinion.

Also unmentioned is that opioids are usually not prescribed for osteoarthritis or simple back pain, which are often treated with NSAIDs and over-the-counter pain relievers.

So, what JAMA has published is a government funded study designed to look at a treatment (opioids) that most people with back pain and arthritis never actually get.

“You've been had by anti-opioid advocates disguising their advocacy as science.  Krebs is well known in professional circles for this kind of distorted advocacy junk science,” wrote patient advocate Red Lawhern, PhD, in a comment submitted to the Philadelphia Inquirer after it published a misleading headline of its own, “Prescription opioids fail rigorous new test for chronic pain.”

“I suggest that you retract your article.  In its present form, it is propaganda not fact,” said Lawhern, a co-founder of the Alliance for the Treatment of Intractable Pain (ATIP). “Opioids have never been the first-line medical treatment of choice in lower back pain or arthritis. That role is served by anti-inflammatory meds, some of them in the prescription cortico-steroid family.  NSAIDs have a role to play, recognizing that they are actively dangerous in many patients if taken at high doses for long periods.  Hundreds of people die every year of cardiac arrest or liver toxicity due to high-dose acetaminophen or ibuprofen.” 

Who is Erin Krebs?  

Dr. Krebs is an associate professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School and a prolific researcher at the VA Medical Center in Minneapolis.

She was also an original member of the “Core Expert Group” – an advisory panel that secretly drafted the CDC’s controversial opioid guidelines while getting a good deal of input from the anti-opioid activist group Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP). The guidelines recommend that opioids not be prescribed for chronic pain.

Krebs also appeared in a lecture series on opioid prescribing that was funded by the Steve Rummler Hope Foundation, which coincidentally is the fiscal sponsor of PROP. 

Some of her previous opioid research has been controversial. In a study published last year in the Annals of Internal Medicine, Krebs reviewed 67 studies on the safety and effectiveness of opioid tapering. Most of the studies were of poor quality, but nevertheless Krebs came to the conclusion that pain levels and the quality of life of patients “may improve during and after opioid dose reduction.”

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ERIN KREBS, MD

“This review found insufficient evidence on adverse events related to opioid tapering, such as accidental overdose if patients resume use of high-dose opioids or switch to illicit opioid sources or onset of suicidality or other mental health symptoms,” wrote Krebs.

PROP founder Andrew Kolodny, MD, read the review and liked it, tweeting that “dangerously high doses should be reduced even if patient refuses.”

But forced opioid tapering is never a good idea, according to a top CDC official.

“Neither (Kreb’s) review nor CDC's guideline provides support for involuntary or precipitous tapering. Such practice could be associated with withdrawal symptoms, damage to the clinician–patient relationship, and patients obtaining opioids from other sources,” wrote Deborah Dowell, MD, a CDC Senior Medical Advisor, in an editorial also published in the Annals of Internal Medicine. 

As for Krebs’ contention that there is “insufficient evidence” of adverse events associated with opioid tapering, that notion may be put to rest next month when the VA releases a new study showing that tapering has led to a growing number of suicides by veterans.

In a summary of the findings, which will be presented at the Rx Drug Abuse & Heroin Summit, VA researchers report that “opioid discontinuation was not associated with overdose mortality, but was associated with increased suicide mortality.”  

Who and what should we believe in the neverending debate about opioids? PNN columnist Roger Chriss wrote about Krebs’ opioids vs. non-opioids study last year, when the initial reports of its findings came out. Roger said prescribing decisions are best left to physicians who know their patients’ medical conditions – not researchers, regulators or the news media.

“In reality, there is no ‘versus’ here. Opioids and NSAIDs are both valuable tools for chronic pain management. To pretend that one is inherently better than the other is to miss the essential point: Both work and should be available for use as medically appropriate,” Roger wrote.