Hormones & Pain Care: What Every Patient Should Know

By Forest Tennant, MD, Guest Columnist

As we start the year 2019, every chronic pain patient needs to know the status of hormones and pain care. Unfortunately, the recent hysteria over opioids has obscured the positive advances in the understanding and application of hormonal care to the relief and recovery of pain patients.

In fact, research and clinical experience is starting to revolutionize the way I personally think about pain care. Hormones are showing us the natural, biologic way the body deals with pain and injury. They are clearly the way forward.

Why the Excitement Over Hormones?

Hormones have recently been discovered to be made in the brain and spinal cord (central nervous system – CNS). Some hormones are made that have the specific job and function to protect (“neuroprotection”) CNS tissue from injury and to regrow the injured tissue (“neuroregeneration”). These hormones are collectively called “neurohormones.”

Intractable, chronic pain is actually a type of poisonous, electromagnetic energy that causes injury by producing inflammation (“neuroinflammation”) in the CNS and implanting the pain (e.g. “centralization”) so as to make it constantly (“24/7”) present.

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The process is similar to dropping acid on your skin which burns and causes inflammation to be followed by tissue destruction and scar formation. Fortunately, some neurohormones are made in the CNS to stop the pain, inflammation, tissue destruction and scarring process and rebuild the nerve cell network in the CNS.

Until recently, we physicians didn’t have a clue on how to enhance the natural, biologic hormonal system to help pain patients.

Excitement over neurohormones has really been enhanced by research in rats that had their spinal cords cut so that they walked around their cages dragging their hind legs. They were given some neurohormones which healed their spinal cords to the point that they could normally walk.

Other animal research studies using different test models with CNS tissue have also shown the power of specific hormones to heal and regrow brain and spinal cord nerve cells. This author can’t speak for others, but, in my opinion, these research studies are so compelling that hormone use in pain care has got to be fully investigated.

Are We Making Headway?

Absolutely, yes! First, eight specific hormones made in the CNS have been identified that produce healing effects in animals and show benefit in early clinical trials with chronic pain patients. These early trials indicate that some neurohormones can reduce pain and produce healing and curative neuroregeneration effects.

Six of these hormones are collectively known as “neurosteroids.” Don’t let the term “steroid” raise your eyebrows as it refers only to the chemical structure and not the complications of cortisone-type drugs. Some of the neurosteroids are known to the lay person such as estradiol, progesterone, and testosterone.

Two of the hormones produced in the CNS that control pain but are not classified as a “neurosteroid” are human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG) and oxytocin.

CENTRAL NERVOUS SYSTEM HORMONES

  • ALLOPREGNANOLONE
  • ESTRADIOL
  • DEHYDROEPIANDROSTERONE (DHEA)
  • HUMAN CHORIONIC GONADOTROPIN (HCG)
  • OXYTOCIN
  • PREGNENOLONE
  • PROGESTERONE
  • TESTOSTERONE

Due to all the controversies surrounding opioids and pain treatment, one would never know we have, in the past couple of years, made serious headway with hormones and pain care. Medical science has discovered which hormones reduce chronic pain and how the hormones can be prescribed. The overall hormone advance in pain care can, however, be generally summarized in that one or more of the neurohormones can be administered to provide some curative and regenerative benefit in essentially every chronic pain patient.

Replenishment of Deficient Hormones

The production of hormones made in the CNS can be assessed by blood tests which are available in every commercial, community laboratory. The amount of hormone in your blood stream is a pooled amount of hormone made in the CNS and in the glands; adrenals, ovary, and gonads (ovary and testicles).

I recommend a hormone blood test panel of these 6 hormones: cortisol, DHEA, estradiol, pregnenolone, progesterone, and testosterone. If any are low, they should be replenished. Why? Severe chronic pain may overwhelm the production of one or more of these hormones.

If you take opioids and other symptomatic pain medications such as antidepressants and muscle relaxants, you may actually suppress the production of some hormones, particularly testosterone, DHEA, and pregnenolone.

I highly recommend that every chronic pain patient have a hormone blood panel test at least twice a year and replenish any hormone that is low in the blood stream.
— Dr. Forest Tennant

The reason you must replace any deficient hormone is because all 6 of them activate pain centers (“receptors”) in the CNS to reduce pain and produce a healing and curative effect. These hormones act as sort of a co-factor or “booster” of symptomatic pain relievers such as opioids and muscle relaxants. I highly recommend that every chronic pain patient have a hormone blood panel test at least twice a year and replenish any hormone that is low in the blood stream.

The Pregnancy Connection

A couple of years ago I was presenting a scientific poster at a medical meeting on some of my hormone research. An old friend came up and asked, “What took you so long?”

I initially thought he was insulting me. He wasn’t. He was lamenting, along with me, a sad fact. We should have long ago been studying the pregnancy hormones, HCG and oxytocin, for everyday pain care.

Why? HCG in pregnancy is the hormone that grows the CNS in the embryo and fetus. Oxytocin is the natural pain reliever in pregnancy that allows a big “tumor” to grow in the abdomen without death-dealing pain. Also, oxytocin surges at the time of delivery to make sure that pain doesn’t kill the expectant mother.

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With such obvious knowledge about natural pain relief in pregnancy, we should have tested these hormones for severe, chronic pain problems before now. Do they work? Yes. Long-term HCG use (over 60 days) is proving most effective in reducing pain and restoring function in some patients with adhesive arachnoiditis and other severe pain problems. Oxytocin is an effective short-term pain reliever that can be taken for pain flares. It can even be taken with symptomatic pain relievers like aspirin, acetaminophen, or a stimulant to help a patient avoid opioids.

Goodbye Symptomatic Treatments

Until the hormones came our way, you never heard much about “symptomatic” versus “curative” care. Why? Up until the discovery that hormones are made inside the CNS and produce curative effects, about all we could do was prescribe symptomatic pain relievers such as opioids, muscle relaxants, and anti-seizure (“neuropathic”) agents. There was no need or hope that we can permanently reduce severe chronic pain, much less hold out a hope for cure or near cure.

Chronic pain patients are beginning to use DHEA, pregnenolone, testosterone, estradiol, progesterone, and HCG on a long-term basis. Dosages are beginning to be determined. For example, DHEA requires a dosage of 200 mg or more each day. Pregnenolone requires 100 mg or more. Patients report reduced levels of pain, fatigue, and depression.

Although few controlled studies have yet been done, the open-label clinical trials are impressive and clearly call for chronic pain patients to get started with the neurohormones that are being found to be beneficial. Neurohormones have changed our thinking and old-hat beliefs.

Every severe chronic pain patient needs to know they can probably do a lot of mending with hormonal care. Be, however, clearly advised. Hormones can mend a lot of damaged nerve tissue, but they can’t fix scar tissue once it sets in.

So far at my clinic site, we have around 60 to 70 people on oxytocin. Early results look good so far. Many are also on DHEA and pregnenolone as well. The treatment seems to be working.
— Nurse practitioner

Unfortunately, millions of severe, chronic pain patients have had no option in the past couple of decades except to take symptomatic medication and use such devices as electrical stimulators.

Even long-standing severe chronic pain patients who are on opioids, however, can almost always benefit from one or more hormones. Most important, I am finding that hormone administration is the best way in most chronic pain patients to reduce opioid dosages but still get good pain relief.

Therapeutic Trials

One of my major purposes in writing this report is to encourage all chronic pain patients to embark upon a search for one or more hormonal treatments that will reduce their pain, need for opioids, and yield a better life. Don’t wait for your medical practitioner to offer hormone testing or treatment. To many overworked medical practitioners, such a request may be considered a real nuisance or even a threat.

Be prepared. Check with other patients in your social media group. Know what you need. Make it easy on your medic. Please share with your social media group this report and any materials you have about hormones and pain care. Most MD’s, NP’s, and PA’s will appreciate your preparation and desire to try something new on a short-term, trial basis.

Every chronic pain patient needs to know that all the hormonal agents described here can be safely tried for one month. This is known as a “therapeutic trial.” Specifically ask your medical practitioner for a one-month, therapeutic trial. In this manner you can find out if the hormone is right for you and whether you should continue with it past one month.

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Forest Tennant, MD, MPH, DrPH, recently retired from clinical practice but continues his groundbreaking research on the treatment of intractable pain and arachnoiditis. To download a complete copy of Dr. Tennant’s report on hormones and pain care, click here.

This report is provided as a public service by the Arachnoiditis Research and Education Project of the Tennant Foundation and is republished with permission. Correspondence should be sent to veractinc@msn.com

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.

Why a Bad Night’s Sleep Causes More Pain

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

It’s no secret that chronic pain makes sleeping difficult. And lack of sleep often makes pain worse.  But how exactly does poor sleep cause more pain?

For the first time, scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, have identified neural glitches in the sleep-deprived brain that can intensify and prolong pain. Their findings, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, help explain the self-perpetuating cycles that contribute to pain and sleep loss.

“Anyone who has had persistent back pain knows that they don’t sleep well when they are in pain. They also know that when they don’t sleep well, it hurts more the next day,” said senior author Matthew Walker, PhD, a UC Berkeley professor of neuroscience and psychology.

"If poor sleep intensifies our sensitivity to pain, as this study demonstrates, then sleep must be placed much closer to the center of patient care, especially in hospital wards.”

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In a small study involving 25 healthy young adults, Walker and his colleagues found that nerves that process pain signals and activate the body’s pain relief hormones are disrupted by insufficient sleep. Study participants were given MRI brain scans twice – once after a good night’s sleep and once after a night of no sleep – and then subjected to a thermal pain test in the laboratory  

“We found some surprising changes. The sleep-deprived brain seems to let more pain in,” Walker said.

Brain imaging showed increased activity in the brain's somatosensory cortex, but there was less activity in the nucleus accumbens, a region of the brain's reward circuitry that increases dopamine levels. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that’s been called the “feel-good hormone” because it is associated with feelings of euphoria and happiness.

Another key brain region found to slow down in the sleep-deprived brain was the insula, which evaluates pain signals and prepares the body to respond.

"This is a critical neural system that assesses and categorizes the pain signals and allows the body's own natural painkillers to come to the rescue," said Adam Krause, lead author of the study and a doctoral student in Walker's Center for Human Sleep Science lab at UC Berkeley.

To further test the sleep-pain connection, researchers surveyed more than 230 adults of all ages nationwide. Respondents were asked to report their nightly hours of sleep, as well as their day-to-day pain levels. The results showed that even minor shifts in sleep patterns were correlated with changes in pain sensitivity.

"The results clearly show that even very subtle changes in nightly sleep -- reductions that many of us think little of in terms of consequences -- have a clear impact on your next-day pain burden," Krause said.

"The optimistic takeaway here is that sleep is a natural analgesic that can help manage and lower pain," said Walker. "Yet ironically, one environment where people are in the most pain is the worst place for sleep -- the noisy hospital ward."

Walker's goal is to work with hospitals to create more sleep-friendly patient facilities.

"Our findings suggest that patient care would be markedly improved, and hospital beds cleared sooner, if uninterrupted sleep were embraced as an integral component of healthcare management," he said.

Several previous studies have found that getting a good night’s sleep helps reduce sensitivity to pain. Researchers in Norway measured pain sensitivity in more than 10,000 adults and found a strong link between pain and insomnia.

Another study in Norway found that women who have trouble sleeping are at greater risk of developing fibromyalgia – although it’s not clear if there’s a cause and effect relationship between the two symptoms.

Is Pain a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy?

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Getting out of bed, taking a shower, doing the dishes and other simple chores can be painful experiences for someone with intractable chronic pain. But some of that pain may be self-fulfilling: Getting out of bed hurts because you expect it to.

That's the theory behind a new brain imaging study published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, which found that false expectations about pain can persist even when reality demonstrates otherwise.

"We discovered that there is a positive feedback loop between expectation and pain," said senior author Tor Wager, PhD, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Colorado Boulder.

"The more pain you expect, the stronger your brain responds to the pain. The stronger your brain responds to the pain, the more you expect."

Wager and his colleagues recruited 34 people for a heat test to see if the expectation of pain can cause changes in neural mechanisms of the brain.

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Participants were taught to associate one symbol with low heat and another with painful heat. Then, the subjects were placed in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine, which measures blood flow in the brain as a proxy for neural activity.

For 60 minutes, subjects were shown the low or high pain cues (the symbols “Low” and “High” or the letters L and W), and then asked to rate how much acute pain they experienced as heat was applied to their forearms or legs. Unbeknownst to the participants, heat intensity was not actually related to the preceding cue.

The study found that when subjects expected more heat, brain regions involved in threat and fear were more active as they waited for the heat to be applied. Regions involved in the generation of pain were also more active when they received the stimulus.

The result? Participants reported more pain with high-pain cues, regardless of how much heat they actually got.

"This suggests that expectations had a rather deep effect, influencing how the brain processes pain," said lead author Marieke Jepma, PhD, a researcher in Wager's lab who is now a researcher at Leiden University in the Netherlands.

Many subjects also demonstrated a high degree of confirmation bias -- a tendency to learn from things that reinforced their beliefs, while discounting those that didn’t. If they expected high pain and got it, they might expect even more pain the next time. But if they expected high pain and didn't get it, nothing changed.

"You would assume that if you expected high pain and got very little you would know better the next time. But interestingly, they failed to learn," said Wager.

Researchers say the study was the first to demonstrate the dynamics of a feedback loop between pain expectations and neural mechanisms that cause pain. Although the test only involved short-term acute pain, researchers say the findings may help explain why chronic pain can linger long after damaged tissues have healed.

"Our results suggest that negative expectations about pain or treatment outcomes may in some situations interfere with optimal recovery, both by enhancing perceived pain and by preventing people from noticing that they are getting better," said Jepma. "Just realizing that things may not be as bad as you think may help you to revise your expectation and, in doing so, alter your experience.”

Childhood Abuse Raises Lupus Risk for Adult Women

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Women who experienced physical or emotional abuse as children have a significantly higher risk of developing lupus as adults, according to new research presented at the annual meeting of the American College of Rheumatology.

Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is a chronic autoimmune disease that causes inflammation in multiple organs. Most patients have times when the disease is active, followed by times when the disease is mostly quiet and in remission. Lupus is far more common in women than men.

In prior work, exposure to stress and stress-related disorders, notably post-traumatic stress disorder, has been associated with increased risk of subsequently developing autoimmune diseases, including lupus,” said lead author Candace Feldman, MD, an Assistant Professor at Brigham and Women’s Hospital/Harvard Medical School.

“Exposure to adverse childhood experiences has specifically been associated with higher levels of inflammation, as well as with changes in immune function.”

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To identify what kind of childhood trauma raises the risk of lupus, Feldman and her colleagues looked at health data for over 67,000 women participating in the Nurses’ Health Study II, an ongoing study of female nurses that began in 1989. There were 93 diagnosed cases of lupus among the women.

In detailed questionnaires, the women were asked whether and how often as children they experienced physical abuse from a family member, or yelling, screaming or insulting remarks from a family member. The women were also asked to recall incidents of sexual abuse by either adults or older children.

Researchers found that physical and emotional abuse were associated with a more than twofold greater risk of developing lupus. But the data did not reveal a statistically significant association between sexual abuse and lupus risk.

The study’s findings suggest that the effects of exposure to physical and emotional abuse during childhood may be more far-reaching than previously appreciated,” said Feldman. “The strong association observed between childhood abuse and lupus risk suggests the need for further research to understand biological and behavioral changes triggered by stress combined with other environmental exposures. In addition, physicians should consider screening their patients for experiences of childhood abuse and trauma.”

This is not the first study to find an association between childhood trauma and chronic illness in adults. A recent study of 265 adults in New York City found that those who experienced more adversity or trauma as children were more likely to have mood or sleep problems as adults -- which in turn made them more likely to have physical pain.

Another study found that children who witness domestic violence between their parents are significantly more likely to experience migraine headaches as adults. A large survey also found that nearly two-thirds of adults who suffer from migraines experienced emotional abuse as children.

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.

Lavigne Keeps ‘Head Above Water’ with Lyme Disease

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Lady Gaga isn’t the only celebrity speaking out about her battle with chronic pain and illness.

Pop star Avril Lavigne has released a new album called “Head Above Water” that was inspired by her battle with Lyme disease -- a bacterial infection usually spread by ticks that can lead to severe pain and chronic fatigue if it’s not treated and diagnosed early.

That’s what happened to Lavigne, who thought she just had the flu when she started having symptoms in 2014. It took several months for her to get a correct diagnosis.

“I was seeing every specialist, literally the top doctors, and they would pull up their computer and (say) ‘Chronic fatigue syndrome’ or “Why don’t you try to get out of bed Avril and just go play the piano? Are you depressed?’” Lavigne said in an emotional interview on Good Morning America.

This is what they do to a lot of people that have Lyme disease. They don’t have an answer for them, so they tell them they’re crazy.”

The 33-year old singer eventually found a Lyme specialist who diagnosed her correctly. By then she was bedridden.

“One night, I thought I was dying, and I had accepted that I was going to die. My mom laid with me in bed and held me. I felt like I was drowning,” Lavigne wrote on her website.

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AVRIL LAVIGNE

“Under my breath, I prayed ‘God, please help to keep my head above the water.’ In that moment, the song writing of this album began. It was like I tapped into something. It was a very spiritual experience. Lyrics flooded through me from that point on.”

Although the single “Head Above Water” is about Lyme disease, anyone bedridden or housebound by chronic pain or illness can probably relate to it.

Lavigne went public about her battle with Lyme disease in 2015, but it was another two years before she was well enough to sit at a piano and started composing music again.

“I fought Lyme disease on antibiotics and herbs for two years. I tried to have a life, but was in bed the majority of the time, and it was very up and down with good days and bad days,” Lavigne explained.

“When you’re in bed for the better part of two years, you lose muscle mass and your entire body gets weak. I’ve had to work to get my endurance up. ‘Head Above Water’ was the first song that I sang. I was fresh off not singing for two years. I thought my voice would be weak, it ended up being stronger than ever. The break happened to actually be good for my vocal cords.”

“Head Above Water” is the sixth album for the Canadian born singer, who has been nominated for eight Grammy Awards. Her single “Girlfriend” was the first music video to reach 100 million views on YouTube. Her foundation – the Avril Lavigne Foundation – raises awareness and supports people with Lyme disease and other chronic illnesses.

Can Sugar Pills Relieve Chronic Pain?

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

“Sugar pills relieve pain for chronic pain patients”

That is the actual headline in a news release issued this week by the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University. If you’re a pain sufferer and that doesn’t make you laugh or get your blood boiling – then the rest of this article probably will.

So be forewarned.

In an age when many chronic pain patients are being urged to try yoga, meditation, acupuncture and plain old aspirin, Northwestern researchers have concluded that many could find pain relief in a sugar pill.

That conclusion is based on a lengthy but small study of 63 patients with chronic back pain.  Twenty patients were given no treatment, while the rest were given a placebo – a sugar pill that they were told was pain medication. No one was given an actual painkiller.

Over the course of 8 weeks, participants tracked their pain on a smartphone app, MRI brain images were taken, and psychological profiles of each patient were made.

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The study, published in the journal Nature Communications, found that about half the patients who took the placebo had a 30 percent reduction in pain, a level considered just as effective as a real painkiller.

Researchers said patients who responded to the sugar pills had a similar brain anatomy and psychological traits. The right side of their emotional brain was larger than the left, and they had a larger sensory area than people who did not respond to the placebo. The placebo responders also were more emotionally self-aware, sensitive to painful situations and mindful of their environment.

“This is the first brain imaging RCT (randomized controlled trial) specifically designed to study chronic pain patients receiving placebo pills compared to a no treatment arm,” said senior study author A. Vania Apkarian, PhD, a professor of physiology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.  

“Daily pain ratings from a smart phone revealed that patients receiving placebo pills showed stronger pain reduction and a higher response rate compared to patients in the no treatment arm, indicating that placebo pills successfully induced analgesia that could not be explained by the natural history of the patient or the mere exposure to the study.”

Doctors ‘Should Seriously Consider’ Placebos

Although his study is small and needs to be replicated, Apkarian thinks doctors should put his findings to work.

"Clinicians who are treating chronic pain patients should seriously consider that some will get as good a response to a sugar pill as any other drug," he said. "They should use it and see the outcome. This opens up a whole new field."

Giving pain patients sugar pills would not only save healthcare costs, Apkarian says they would eliminate the risk of addiction and other side-effects from pharmaceutical drugs.

"It's much better to give someone a non-active drug rather than an active drug and get the same result," Apkarian said. "Most pharmacological treatments have long-term adverse effects or addictive properties. Placebo becomes as good an option for treatment as any drug we have on the market."

The medical community has long known about the potency of the placebo effect and put it to use. Doctors as far back as the late 18th century used placebo treatments “more to please than benefit the patient.”

Today, the gold standard of clinical trials is a “placebo-controlled study” in which some participants are given sugar pills and sham treatments. The medication or therapy being studied has to be found more effective than the placebo for the study to be considered a success.

Time magazine recently published a cover story on placebos, sharing the stories of real patients who find relief in placebo pills even though they know they’re fake.

You don’t need to enroll in a clinical study to take placebos. You can buy a bottle of Zeebo’s “honest placebo pills” for $14.95 on Amazon. Some of the reviews for Zeebo are hilarious.

“I have not bought this product, but just reading about it brightened my day. And the comfort of knowing that if I ever needed a good placebo, its right here available with free shipping and two day delivery. I feel better already!” said one reviewer.

“The pills do every thing promised, which is nothing,” wrote another reviewer. “I purchased them in the forlorn hope that they would fool my demented wife that they helped to relieve her chronic pain. I didn't expect much going in and I wasn't disappointed.”

CDC: 50 Million Americans Have Chronic Pain

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other federal agencies have faced a fair amount of criticism over the years for adopting insensitive policies and guidelines that are often harmful to the pain community. But there are growing signs the CDC and other agencies are starting to listen to or at least better understand pain patients.

Today the CDC released a new report estimating that 50 million Americans – just over 20 percent of the adult population – have chronic pain. About 20 million of them have “high-impact chronic pain” -- pain severe enough that it frequently limits life or work activities. The estimates are based on the 2016 National Health Interview Survey of over 33,000 adults.

“Pain is a component of many chronic conditions, and chronic pain is emerging as a health concern on its own, with negative consequences to individual persons, their families, and society as a whole,” reported James Dahlhamer, PhD, of the CDC's Division of Health Interview Statistics.

Dahlhamer and his colleagues found that women, unemployed older adults, adults living in poverty, rural residents and people without public health insurance are significantly more likely to have chronic pain, while the risk of pain is lower for people with a bachelor’s degree.

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“Socioeconomic status appears to be a common factor in many of the subgroup differences in high-impact chronic pain prevalence,” they found. “Education, poverty, and health insurance coverage have been determined to be associated with both general health status and the presence of specific health conditions as well as with patients’ success in navigating the health care system. Identifying populations at risk is necessary to inform efforts for developing and targeting quality pain services.”

Different Estimates

Last week the National Institutes of Health (NIH) released its own research on high impact chronic pain (HICP), estimating that 11 million American adults have it -- about half the CDC’s estimate.

Both the NIH and CDC are part of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). It was not immediately clear why the two estimates are so far apart – or why two government agencies in the same department were studying the same thing at the same time.  

It’s certainly not the first time researchers have disagreed on the number of people in pain. In 2011, the Institute of Medicine released a landmark report claiming at least 100 million Americans have chronic pain, an estimate that one critic said was a “ridiculous number.” Other estimates range from 39 to 70 million.

“The multidimensional nature of chronic pain is not reflected in commonly used operational definitions… resulting in inordinately high prevalence estimates that limit our ability to effectively address chronic pain on a national level,” said Mark Pitcher, PhD, a visiting fellow at the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH).

Like their counterparts at the CDC, NIH researchers found that socioeconomic factors play a significant role in high impact chronic pain. HICP sufferers not only have more severe pain, they are more likely to have mental and cognitive health issues, as well as substantially higher healthcare costs. About 83 percent of people with HICP are unable to work and one-third have difficulty with simple activities such as bathing and getting dressed.

“By differentiating those with HICP, a condition that is associated with higher levels of anxiety, depression, fatigue, and cognitive difficulty, we hope to improve clinical research and practice,” said co-author M. Catherine Bushnell, PhD, scientific director at NCCIH.

The concept of HICP was first proposed by the National Pain Strategy to better identify patients with pain severe enough to interfere with work and life activities. It also helps distinguish HICP from other types of chronic pain that are less impactful and more easily treated.

“It is crucial that we fully understand how people’s lives are affected by chronic pain. It will help improve care for individuals living with chronic pain and strategically guide our research programs that aim to reduce the burden of pain at the population level,” said Linda Porter, PhD, director of the Office of Pain Policy at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. 

The Food and Drug Administration has also recently taken steps to better understand the chronic pain population. In July, the FDA held a day-long public hearing and heard from dozens of pain patients and advocates. Some fought back tears as they testified about the lack of access to opioid medication and the deteriorating quality of pain care in the U.S.

One in 10 Suicides Linked to Chronic Pain

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

The nation’s suicide rate has been climbing steadily for over a decade and so have the number of suicides associated with chronic pain, according to a groundbreaking study by researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The researchers looked at over 123,000 suicides in 18 states from 2003 to 2014 and found that about 10 percent of those who died either had chronic pain in their medical records or mentioned it in suicide notes. The percentage of suicides linked to pain grew from 7.4% in 2003 to 10.2% in 2014 – a 27 percent increase in just over a decade.  

“Our results highlight the importance of pain in quality of life and premature death, and contribute to the growing body of evidence indicating that chronic pain might be an important risk factor for suicide,” said lead author Emiko Petrosky, MD, CDC National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.

“The results probably underrepresent the true percentage of suicide decedents who had chronic pain, given the nature of the data and how they were captured.”

The study, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, is one of the first of its kind to explore the connection between pain and suicide – which is now the 10th leading cause of death in the United States.

Nearly 45,000 Americans took their own lives in 2016, more than the number of poisoning deaths from illicit and prescription opioids.

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Back pain was the most common condition involved in pain suicides, followed by cancer pain, arthritis, migraine and fibromyalgia. Anxiety and depression were also more likely to be diagnosed in pain suicides than in those without pain.

More than a quarter of the suicide victims with chronic pain (27.1%) had served in the military. Over half died from firearm injuries and 16.2% by opioid overdose.

“Although opioid prescribing to treat chronic pain has increased in recent years, we found that the percentage of decedents with chronic pain who died by opioid overdose did not change over time. This finding suggests that increases in opioid availability are not associated with greater suicide risk from opioid overdose among patients with chronic pain.” Petrosky said.

It’s worth noting that the 2003-2014 study period was before the CDC released its controversial guideline on opioid prescribing in 2016, a sea change event that many in the pain community blame for lack of access to opioid medication and growing number of patient suicides.

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“I know that I could not stand my pain if my morphine is taken away,” one reader told us. “I will be a suicide statistic. Make sure the CDC gets blamed for my death.”

“I can only speak for myself how the CDC guidelines and the FORCED reduction of my pain medicine has brought my life to a near standstill. I get up in the mornings now and I think 5 out of those 7 mornings I sit here and cry,” said another.

“A few years ago I would've thought that the idea of deliberately driving people to suicide was a crazy conspiracy theory. Now I have almost no problem believing it,” wrote another reader.

As PNN has reported, the CDC is making no concerted effort to evaluate or track the impact of its opioid guideline on patients or on the quality of pain care. When asked if lack of access to opioid medication may be contributing to patient suicides, CDC officials would only say they were tracking opioid prescribing rates and “working on comprehensive pain management strategies.”

Genetic Variation Raises Risk of Post-Traumatic Pain

By Pat Anson, Editor

If you have chronic pain because of an accident, injury or assault, it could be because you have a genetic variation that makes you more likely to develop post-traumatic pain.

That’s the key finding behind a new study published in the Journal of Neuroscience. Researchers at the University of North Carolina studied over 1,500 people who were admitted to emergency rooms for trauma after a motor vehicle collision.

In addition to genotyping the patients, the researchers assessed their distress immediately after the accident, as well as their pain and post-traumatic stress symptoms six weeks later. Participants with a particular variant in the gene FKBP5 reported more severe pain and distress at follow up.

FKBP5 is a critical regulator of the stress response and affects how we respond to environmental stimuli. Previous studies have shown that certain variants of the gene play a role in the development of neuropsychiatric disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, suicide risk and aggressive behavior.

UNC School of Medicine researchers were the first to show an association between FKBP5 and post-traumatic chronic pain. A 2013 study found that people with a particular variation of the gene are likely to experience more pain after exposure to trauma compared to people who don't have the variant.

The new study by the same research group builds on that discovery by showing that the variation inhibits the regulation of cortisol, a stress hormone that sensitizes peripheral nerves. People with high levels of cortisol are likely to experience more pain.

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"In our current study, we showed that the reason this variant affects chronic pain outcomes is because it alters the ability of FKBP5 to be regulated by a microRNA called miR-320a," said lead author Sarah Linnstaedt, PhD, a professor of anesthesiology and an investigator in the UNC Institute for Trauma Recovery.

"In other words, it does not negatively regulate FKBP5, thus causing FKBP5 to be over-expressed. High levels of FKBP5 can be detrimental because it alters natural feedback mechanisms that control circulating cortisol levels."

Linnstaedt says the findings suggest there could be new therapeutic approaches to treating traumatic pain, such as medication that inhibits the activity of FKBP5 or gene editing that alters the variation.

Funding for the UNC study was provided by the National Institute of Arthritis, Musculoskeletal, and Skin Diseases, The Mayday Fund, a Future Leaders in Pain Grant from The American Pain Society, and the National Human Genome Research Institute.