Chronic Pain Causes Brains to Age More Rapidly

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Poorly treated or untreated chronic pain can lead to a number of other health problems, from high blood pressure and insomnia to depression and anxiety.

Now there is evidence that chronic pain also causes brains to age more rapidly, raising the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and other neurological problems associated with aging.

“Our findings highlight the need to address chronic pain, not just in older individuals but in potentially everyone, as pain may have unintended consequences in the brain that we don’t yet fully understand,” said lead author Yenisel Cruz-Almeida, PhD, a researcher at the University of Florida Institute on Aging.

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Over a three-year period, Cruz-Almeida and her colleagues used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to measure the volume of gray and white matter in the brains of 47 older adults, ages 60 to 83.  The volunteers were free of neurological disorders and in generally good health, although 33 of them had some type of chronic pain.

Volunteers who did not have chronic pain had brains that appeared four years younger than their actual age.

Chronic pain sufferers had brains that appeared an average of two years older. They were also more likely to have greater pain intensity, have a “less agreeable personality” and be less emotionally stable, according to researchers.

The University of Florida produced this video on the study, which was recently published online in the journal Pain.

“Not everybody ages the same way,” said Cruz-Almeida. “I don’t want people to think, ‘Oh, I have chronic pain. I’m doomed.’ This is not the case. That is not the message we want to get out. There is more nuance than that.”

Interestingly, the volunteers who reported getting pain treatment in the last three months had younger-appearing brains compared to those that did not, suggesting that pain relief slows brain aging. Pain sufferers who had a happier outlook on life and were generally more upbeat also had younger-appearing brains.

“The pain experience is not just in your brain,” said Cruz-Almeida. “There appear to be avenues or things that could be done to change brain age.

“Our findings also suggest that both pain treatments and psychological traits may significantly mitigate the effect of pain on the aging brain and could further decrease the risk of age-related deterioration and death.”

Cruz-Almeida is planning additional research with a larger sample of older adults that will look at ways to alleviate accelerated brain aging.

‘Radical Shift’ Predicted in Fibromyalgia Diagnosis and Treatment  

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

New research has uncovered a previously unknown connection between fibromyalgia and the early stages of diabetes, which could dramatically change the way the chronic pain condition is diagnosed and treated.

In a small study of 23 fibromyalgia patients and two control groups, researchers at The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston (UTMB) were able to separate patients with fibromyalgia (FM) from healthy individuals using a common blood test for insulin resistance, or pre-diabetes. They then treated the fibromyalgia patients with a medication targeting insulin resistance (IR), which dramatically reduced their pain levels.

“Although preliminary, these findings suggest a pathogenetic relationship between FM and IR,  which may lead to a radical paradigm shift in the management of this disorder,” researchers reported in the online journal PlosOne.

Fibromyalgia is a poorly understood disorder that causes widespread body pain, fatigue, insomnia, headaches and mood swings. The cause is unknown, the symptoms are difficult to treat and there is no universally accepted way to diagnose it.

"Earlier studies discovered that insulin resistance causes dysfunction within the brain's small blood vessels. Since this issue is also present in fibromyalgia, we investigated whether insulin resistance is the missing link in this disorder," said Miguel Pappolla, MD, a professor of neurology at UTMB.

Pappolla and his colleagues found that patients with fibromyalgia can be identified by their hemoglobin A1c levels, a protein in red blood cells that reflects blood sugar levels. A1c tests are widely used to diagnose type 2 diabetes and pre-diabetes, and are routinely used in diabetes management.

Researchers say pre-diabetics with slightly elevated A1c levels carry a higher risk of developing widespread body pain, a hallmark of fibromyalgia and other chronic pain conditions.

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"Considering the extensive research on fibromyalgia, we were puzzled that prior studies had overlooked this simple connection," said Pappolla. "The main reason for this oversight is that about half of fibromyalgia patients have A1c values currently considered within the normal range.

“However, this is the first study to analyze these levels normalized for the person's age, as optimal A1c levels do vary throughout life. Adjustment for the patients' age was critical in highlighting the differences between patients and control subjects."

After identifying the fibromyalgia patients with elevated A1c levels, researchers treated them with metformin, an oral medication that manages insulin resistance by restoring normal blood sugar levels. The patients showed dramatic reductions in their pain levels, with half (8 of 16 patients) having a complete resolution of pain.

“Our data provides preliminary evidence suggesting that IR may be a pathological substratum in FM and sets the stage for future studies to confirm these initial observations. If confirmed, our findings may translate not only into a radical paradigm shift for the management of FM but may also save billions of dollars to healthcare systems around the world,” researchers reported.

Social Support Key to Recovery from Suicidal Thoughts

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Hardly a day goes by that I don’t get an email or a comment left on this website about suicide.

Recently a young military veteran named “Joe” reached out. Joe is depressed and unable to work because he has chronic back and leg pain

“The thing is, I’m just about to turn 28 and can’t fathom how I’m supposed to go on like this for another year or two let alone trying to live my life for the next 60-70 years,” Joe wrote. “I’m not going to do anything yet but I have been seriously looking into euthanasia. I haven’t been able to have a real conversation with anybody about it, not even one of my 5 therapists or my wife, because I already know their reactions.”

Joe said he felt very rational about his decision but was anxious to talk about it “without being thrown into a straightjacket.”

Joe’s instinctive urge to talk with someone could be the key to working through this difficult time in his life, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Toronto. They analyzed a survey of 635 Canadians with chronic pain who had seriously thought about suicide to find out what qualities made those thoughts go away. Suicide “ideation” disappeared in about two-thirds of them.

Having a social support network – someone to talk to – was the key.

“The biggest factor in recovery from suicidal thoughts was having a confidant, defined as having at least one close relationship that provide the person in chronic pain a sense of emotional security and well-being,” said lead author Esme Fuller-Thomson, PhD, a Professor of Social Work, Medicine and Nursing and Director of the Institute for Life Course & Aging.

“Even when a wide range of other characteristics such as age, gender and mental health history were taken into account, those with a confidant had 87 percent higher odds of being in remission from suicidal thoughts compared to those with no close relationships."

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People with pain who stopped having suicidal thoughts were also significantly more likely to be older, female, white, better educated, and more likely to use prayer and spirituality to cope with daily problems.

Living in poverty and struggling to pay basic living expenses were barriers to recovery from suicide ideation. Poverty can severely limit access to healthcare, transportation and social activity.

"Clearly we need targeted efforts to decrease social isolation and loneliness among those experiencing chronic pain. These participants reported that pain prevented some or most of their activities, so they were particularly vulnerable to social isolation,” said Fuller-Thomson. “More awareness by the general public that mobility limitations associated with chronic pain can make it difficult for individuals to socialize outside the household, could encourage friends and family to visit and phone more and thereby decrease loneliness."

PNN’s recent survey of over 6,000 patients and healthcare providers shows how pervasive suicide is in the pain community. Nearly half the patients said they have considered suicide, while nearly one in four practitioners said they have lost a patient to suicide.

The good news is that public health agencies are finally starting to pay attention to these issues. Last week the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned doctors not to abruptly discontinue or rapidly taper patients on opioid pain medication because of the risk of suicide.

“(FDA) has received reports of serious harm in patients who are physically dependent on opioid pain medicines suddenly having these medicines discontinued or the dose rapidly decreased. These include serious withdrawal symptoms, uncontrolled pain, psychological distress, and suicide,” the agency said.

If you or a loved one are having suicidal thoughts, support is just a phone call away. The Suicide Prevention Lifeline has trained counselors on duty 24/7 at 1-800-273-TALK.

1 in 5 Multiple Sclerosis Patients Misdiagnosed

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Menopause Linked to Chronic Pain

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

It’s no secret that middle-aged women are far more likely than men to have chronic pain and to feel its effects more severely. A large new study tells us some of the reasons why.

VA researchers analyzed the health data of over 200,000 female veterans between the ages of 45 and 64 and found that women with menopause symptoms were nearly twice as likely to have chronic pain and multiple chronic pain diagnoses.

"Changing levels of hormones around menopause have complex interactions with pain modulation and pain sensitivity, which may be associated with vulnerability to either the development or exacerbation of pain conditions," says JoAnn Pinkerton, MD, Executive Director of the North American Menopause Society (NAMS). "This study suggests that menopause symptom burden may also be related to chronic pain experience."

Hormonal change alone wasn’t the only thing many of the women had in common. Those who were overweight, obese or had a mental health diagnosis were also more likely to have chronic pain. Eighteen percent of the female veterans had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), 13 percent suffered from depression and 15 percent had anxiety.

Common changes related to menopause and aging include weight gain, decreased physical activity, impaired sleep and negative mood, which can contribute to chronic pain and are also known to affect pain sensitivity and tolerance.

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“Both chronic pain and menopause symptoms are strongly and consistently associated with psychosocial factors and health risk behaviors prevalent in and after the menopause transition,” said lead author Carolyn Gibson, PhD, San Francisco VA Health Care System. “Consideration should be given to integrated approaches to comprehensive care for midlife and older women with chronic pain, such as targeted cognitive behavioral therapy coordinated with interdisciplinary care providers.”    

The study findings are published in the journal Menopause.

A large 2018 study also found a strong association between menopause and symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Researchers at the University of Nebraska Medical Center found that post-menopausal women with RA had a significant increase in functional physical decline. Menopause was also associated with worsening progression of the disease.  

Putting a Pin into Pain

By Pat Anson, Editor

As a social media platform, Pinterest is best known as a place to share recipes or get tips about fashion and home decorating — topics that appeal to its core audience of women.

But over the years Pinterest has quietly evolved into a surprisingly good place to learn about chronic pain and to network with others in the pain community, according to researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University. Their study, “Pinning to Cope: Using Pinterest for Chronic Pain Management,” was recently published in the journal Health Education & Behavior.

“We’re seeing that Pinterest is being used by patients to really support each other, to provide information for each other, and to just find an outlet for dealing with chronic pain,” said Jeanine Guidry, PhD, who studies social media and mobile technology.

Guidry and co-author Eric Benotsch, PhD, a psychology professor at VCU, analyzed 502 posts on Pinterest about chronic pain and found – not surprisingly -- that nearly all referred in some way to the severity of pain.

But rather than just complaining about their pain, many of the posters shared or “pinned” positive tips on self-care and pain management, along with tips for caregivers and friends. About 18% of the posts used humor as a coping mechanism.

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“Our findings show that, first of all, people are talking about chronic pain on Pinterest,” Guidry said. “But second of all, our findings show that the vast majority of posts were by individuals.”

Relatively few of the posts originated with healthcare or public health organizations, and researchers said there was “cause for concern” about the lack of information from reputable health sources. A key finding was that posts about chronic pain on Pinterest have a higher level of user engagement than most other healthcare topics.

“Knowing that this conversation about chronic pain is taking place on Pinterest, health communication professionals should consider using Pinterest [more] because they can really reach out to the people who are trying to manage chronic pain,” Guidry said.

Pinterest has about 250 million active users and 80 percent of them are women. Guidry says the social media platform could be leveraged more to communicate with pain sufferers.

“Is it the biggest platform for these kind of topics? No, but it’s obvious it’s being used,” she said. “And it’s an outlet we should use as health communicators.

“When you look at these Pinterest posts, you see people trying to manage pain and trying to help each other and trying to provide support to each other. That is something that could be turned into an effective tool for health care providers and for communicators.”

Guidry said the study’s findings are encouraging because they suggest that people with chronic pain are posting about healthy coping mechanisms and other people are engaging with them.

“Chronic pain posts have a strong presence on Pinterest, and health care professionals should both consider utilizing the platform in order to reach a population they might not otherwise reach, as well as broadening this field of study to determine a clearer picture of the potential uses of this and other social media platforms,” she said.

To visit PNN on Pinterest, click here.

Ambroxol: A Potential New Treatment for Chronic Pain

By A Rahman Ford, PNN Columnist

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

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

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

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

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

An Old Drug with a New Purpose

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

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

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

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

Ambroxol and Fibromyalgia

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

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

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

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A. Rahman Ford, PhD, is a lawyer and research professional. He is a graduate of Rutgers University and the Howard University School of Law, where he served as Editor-in-Chief of the Howard Law Journal. He earned his PhD at the University of Pennsylvania.

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

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.