Study Finds Naltrexone Has No Serious Side Effects

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

A generic drug increasingly used off-label to treat fibromyalgia and other chronic pain conditions is safe to use and more clinical studies are needed on its potential uses, according to British researchers.

Naltrexone is primarily used to treat alcoholism and opioid addiction, but many patients have discovered that low doses of naltrexone (LDN) are effective in relieving pain and other symptoms.

Many doctors won’t prescribe naltrexone, often citing liver toxicity as a reason. But when researchers at The University of Manchester reviewed 89 placebo-controlled studies of naltrexone involving over 11,000 patients, they found no evidence of any serious side effects.

"Though naltrexone is licensed for the treatment of alcohol addiction, it remains underutilized,” says lead author Monica Bolton, PhD, who reported her findings in the journal BMC Medicine. "And that has devastating consequences for individuals, health and social services in the UK and around the world.

"It is cost effective and could reduce deaths."

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“Our review also shows that fears over side-effects are unfounded," said co-author Alex Hodkinson, Phd. "Like all drugs for alcohol addiction, the chaotic nature of being an addict means this drug is simply not prescribed as much as it should be,”

Naltrexone does cause minor side effects in some patients, such as nausea and dizziness, and because it is an opioid antagonist the drug should not be taken with opioid medication.

The fact that naltrexone is generic and inexpensive is one reason the drug is not more widely prescribed. There is little incentive for pharmaceutical companies to market naltrexone or to conduct expensive clinical trials to prove its effectiveness in treating pain.

"As it is safe, cheap and long out of patent, naltrexone would seem an excellent candidate for repurposing for a whole range of conditions,” says Bolton. "That is why it is imperative to find ways to fund clinical trials to test if it might one day be possible to license it.

"The problem is, it is extremely difficult to repurpose existing drugs - and naltrexone is just one example of many wasted opportunities to treat people and save the NHS money."

Of the 89 naltrexone trials included in the Manchester University study, only 3 dealt with chronic pain conditions.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that at very low doses of 5 mg or less, naltrexone may be able to treat a range of immune-modulated conditions including Crohn's disease, HIV, multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS).

In a PNN guest column, Marelle Reid shared her experience using LDN to treat Interstitial Cystitis, while Janice Hollander said LDN “completely changed my life” when she started taking it for fibromyalgia.

Patients interested in trying LDN often encounter doctors who refuse to prescribe it. The LDN Research Trust includes a list of LDN-friendly doctors and pharmacies on its website.

 

Chronic Fatigue Patients Often Feel Disbelieved in ERs

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Patients suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) often feel disrespected and disbelieved in hospital emergency rooms, according to a new survey by researchers at Georgetown University Medical Center.

CFS is a complex and poorly understood disorder characterized by extreme fatigue, chronic pain, impaired memory and insomnia. Because many of the symptoms of CFS overlap with other conditions -- including fibromyalgia, depression, and inflammation – a correct diagnosis is often difficult.

In the first study of its kind, Georgetown researchers surveyed 282 CFS patients about their experiences in emergency departments. Two-thirds said they would not go to an ED because they believed they wouldn't be taken seriously or because they had a previous unsatisfactory experience. Only a third said they received appropriate treatment in the ED.

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"The high proportion of patients who were basically told 'It is all in your head' by ED staff indicates that there is much misunderstanding and misgivings about the diagnosis of CFS,” said allergist and immunologist James Baraniuk, MD, senior investigator of the study published in the journal Open Access Emergency Medicine.

“These patients should feel they are respected and that they can receive thorough care when they feel sick enough to go to an ED."

The survey found that only 59 percent of the CFS patients had gone to an ED. In that group, 42 percent were dismissed as having psychosomatic complaints. Asked to collectively rate their ED caregivers' knowledge of chronic fatigue, patients gave them a score of 3.6 on a 10-point scale.

Baraniuk says more training is needed for ED staff and physicians to better understand the disorder.

"An already-available CFS Symptom Severity Questionnaire can be used in the ED to assist with the diagnosis of CFS, and to differentiate exacerbations of CFS symptoms from medical emergencies such as heart attacks or infections," Baraniuk says.

The number one reason for going to the ED was orthostatic intolerance, which occurs when a person feels faint when standing or sitting upright because not enough blood is reaching the brain and heart. The symptoms only improve when a person lies down.

"This condition is something that can be readily addressed by ED caregivers. There is a real need for physician education that will improve their efficiency in identifying and treating CFS and in distinguishing CFS symptoms from other diseases in the exam room," he said.

In 2015, an independent panel convened by the National Institutes of Health called for major changes in the way the healthcare system treats people suffering from chronic fatigue – which is also known as Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS).

“Both society and the medical profession have contributed to ME/CFS patients feeling disrespected and rejected. They are often treated with skepticism, uncertainty, and apprehension and labeled as deconditioned or having a primary psychological disorder,” the panel reported in its final report.

About one million Americans suffer from chronic fatigue, most of them women. There are no pathogens linked to CFS, no diagnostic tests and no known cures.

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.

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.

Fibromyalgia and the High Risk of Suicide

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Studies have shown that fibromyalgia patients are 10 times more likely to die by suicide than the general population, and about three times more likely than other chronic pain patients.

What can be done to reduce that alarmingly high risk?

One possible solution is for fibromyalgia patients to visit a doctor more often, according to a new study published in the journal Arthritis Care & Research.

Researchers at Vanderbilt University Medical Center analyzed health data for nearly 8,900 fibromyalgia patients, finding 34 known suicide attempts and 96 documented cases of suicidal thoughts – also known as suicide ideation. Then they looked at how often the patients saw a doctor.

On average, patients who had suicidal thoughts spent 1.7 hours seeing a doctor per year, while those who did not have suicide ideation visited a doctor an average of 5.9 hours per year.

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The difference was even more substantial for those who tried to commit suicide. Fibromyalgia patients who attempted suicide saw a doctor for less than an hour a year, compared to over 50 hours per year for those who did not try to kill themselves.

“Fifty hours versus one hour – that’s a staggering difference,” said lead author Lindsey McKernan, PhD, a professor of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. “They might have been at one appointment in a year and this disorder, fibromyalgia, takes a lot to manage. It takes a lot of engagement.”

Fibromyalgia is characterized by deep tissue pain, fatigue, depression, insomnia and mood swings. Because fibromyalgia is difficult to diagnose and treat, there is a fair amount of stigma associated with it and patients often feel like they are not believed or taken seriously by their family, friends and doctors.

Self-isolation could be one reason fibromyalgia patients don’t visit a physician as often as they should.

“If you really break it down the people who were having suicidal thoughts weren’t going into the doctor as much. I think about the people who might be falling through the cracks. Chronic pain in and of itself is very isolating over time,” said McKernan.

“Perhaps we can connect those individuals to an outpatient provider, or providers, to improve their care and reduce their suicide risk. We also might see patients at-risk establish meaningful relationships with providers whom they can contact in times of crisis,” said senior author Colin Walsh, MD, a professor of Biomedical Informatics at Vanderbilt.

In addition to seeing a primary care provider or rheumatologist, researchers say fibromyalgia patients should be getting regular exercise and physical therapy, and working with a psychologist or mental health provider.

“We looked at thousands of people in this study and not one who received mental health services of some kind went on to attempt suicide,” McKernan said.

“Often, when you are hurting, your body tells you to stay in bed. Moving is the last thing that you want to do. And when you are tired, when your mood is low, when your body aches, you don’t want to see anybody, but that is exactly what you need to do — contact your doctors, stay in touch with them, and move. It really can make a difference.”

Lady Gaga: ‘Chronic Pain Is No Joke’

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

One of the few celebrities brave enough to speak openly about their battle with chronic pain is talking about it again – in a fashion magazine.

"Chronic pain is no joke. And it's every day waking up not knowing how you're going to feel," Lada Gaga told Vogue in a cover story.

Last year, Lady Gaga revealed that she suffers from fibromyalgia, a poorly understood disorder characterized by deep tissue pain, fatigue, depression and insomnia.

A pain flare up forced her to cancel several concert appearances, which led some skeptics to complain that it was a publicity stunt to promote “Gaga: Five Foot Two,” a Netflix documentary that shows the singer being treated for chronic pain.

Lady Gaga says her fibromyalgia is very real – along with the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) she has from being sexually assaulted as a teenager.

"I get so irritated with people who don't believe fibromyalgia is real," she told Vogue. "For me, and I think for many others, it's really a cyclone of anxiety, depression, PTSD, trauma, and panic disorder - all of which sends the nervous system into overdrive, and then you have nerve pain as a result.

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“You know that feeling when you’re on a roller coaster and you’re just about to go down the really steep slope? That fear and the drop in your stomach? My diaphragm seizes up. Then I have a hard time breathing, and my whole body goes into a spasm. And I begin to cry. That’s what it feels like for trauma victims every day, and it’s… miserable. I always say that trauma has a brain. And it works its way into everything that you do.”

The 32-year old singer said it took years for her to open up about the sexual assault.

“No one else knew. It was almost like I tried to erase it from my brain. And when it finally came out, it was like a big, ugly monster. And you have to face the monster to heal,” she said. “I felt like I was lying to the world because I was feeling so much pain but nobody knew. So that’s why I came out and said that I have PTSD, because I don’t want to hide — any more than I already have to.”

In addition to fibromyalgia and PTSD, Lady Gaga also lives with synovitis, a chronic inflammation in her hip caused by overuse and injury.  Like many pain sufferers, the singer has tried a variety of different treatments to ease her discomfort – from massage to hot saunas to Epsom salt baths. In 2016, she posted on Instagram an image of herself sitting in a sauna wrapped in an emergency blanket.

Lady Gaga’s battle with chronic pain is only a small part of her interview with Vogue. She’s helping to promote A Star is Born – her new film with Brad Cooper that premiers next month.

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.

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.

Breakthrough Blood Test Shows the ‘Color of Pain’

By Steve Weakley

A revolutionary new blood test developed by Australian researchers could give doctors instant insight into the severity of chronic pain by identifying colored biomarkers in the blood.  The “painHS” test uses advanced light spectrum analysis to identify the molecular structure of pain in immune cells.

“We are literally quantifying the color of pain,” explains neuroscientist Mark Hutchinson, PhD, a professor at the University of Adelaide Medical School in Australia.  “We’ve now discovered that we can use the natural color of biology to predict the severity of pain. What we’ve found is that persistent chronic pain has a different natural color in immune cells than in a situation where there isn’t persistent pain.”

Hutchinson and his colleagues discovered molecular changes in the immune cells of chronic pain patients. These pain biomarkers can be instantly identified through hyperspectral imaging, giving doctors the ability to measure a patient’s pain tolerance and sensitivity.

The test could potentially provide physicians with the first biology-based test to measure pain as the “5th vital sign” and to justify prescribing pain medication or other therapies.

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Hutchinson was quick to point out that the test is not intended replace a patient’s description of pain to their physician.  Pain is subjective and varies from patient to patient, depending on their medical condition and many other factors.  Current tests used to measure pain in adults, such as the sad and smiley faces of the Wong-Baker pain scale, are so simple they were initially developed for young children.

“Self-reporting (by patients) is still going to be key but what this does mean is that those ‘forgotten people’ who are unable to communicate their pain conditions such as babies or people with dementia can now have their condition diagnosed and treated,” said Hutchinson, who believes the test could also revolutionize pain treatment in animals.

“Animals can’t tell us if they’re in pain but here we have a Dr. Doolittle type test that enables us to ‘talk’ to the animals so we can find out if they are experiencing pain and then we can help them."

Hutchinson says the test could also help speed the development of new drugs that could target particular kinds of chronic pain, and could eliminate the need for placebos in clinical trials by giving an instant indicator of a treatment’s effectiveness.

“We now know there is a peripheral cell signal, so we could start designing new types of drugs for new types of cellular therapies that target the peripheral immune system to tackle central nervous system pain,” he explained.

Hutchinson thinks the “painHS” test could be widely available to pain specialists and general practitioners in as little as 18 months and could provide a cost-effective tool to measure the severity of pain in patients with back problems, cancer, fibromyalgia, migraines and other conditions.

Several other blood tests have already been developed to diagnose patients with specific chronic pain conditions such as fibromyalgia.

IQuity Labs recently introduced a blood test that can identify fibromyalgia by analyzing ribonucleic acid (RNA) in blood molecules. EpicGenetics launched the first fibromyalgia blood test in 2013. That test looks for chemokines and cytokines, which are protein molecules produced by white blood cells.