Tag Archives: chronic pain

VA Adopts Innovative Project Nationwide

An innovative medical project that we reported in April has made the big time — a nationwide pilot program in the immense Department of Veterans Affairs system, the nation’s largest integrated health care system.

Project ECHO (Extension for Community Healthcare Outcomes) has been working wonders in New Mexico, Washington State, and a few other locations to bring specialty care to thousands of people who previously had little access to this care. Created by Dr. Sanjeev Arora of the University of New Mexico, Project ECHO connects primary care physicians with specialists in weekly case-management and educational teleconferences to give primary care physicians the support they need to manage complex patients with hepatitis C, asthma, chronic pain, rheumatic or cardiac disease, HIV, substance abuse, mental illness, high-risk pregnancy, childhood obesity, and more.

Dr. Arora (center, back turned) leads a Project ECHO videoconference. (Courtesy Project ECHO)

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services awarded Project ECHO an $8.5 million Health Care Innovation grant in May 2012 to expand its operations in two states.

Impressed, the Department of Veterans Affairs cloned Project ECHO and tomorrow will launch a nationwide pilot program in the VA system that could help veterans get care in the local communities instead of traveling to specialists for treatment of heart failure, chronic pain, hepatitis C, etc. In our April 2012 video interview with Dr. Rollin M. Gallagher, deputy national program director for pain management in the Veterans Health Administration, he explains why Project ECHO is so appealing to the VA

The VA’s version, called Specialty Care Access Network-ECHO (or SCAN-ECHO), will kick off officially with a briefing by a panel of experts in Washington, D.C., that also can be viewed by Webcast (how appropriate) on Wednesday, July 11, 2012 from 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Eastern time. Register here to view the Webcast.

The panel will feature Dr. Arora with Dr. Robert A. Pretzel, under-secretary for health in the V.A. system, Dr. John R. Lumpkin, director of the Health Care Group for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which has funded much of Project ECHO’s work, and both specialty and primary care providers from the Cleveland VA Medical Center.

With any luck, the success of Project ECHO will echo across the country as this model of care expands.

–Sherry Boschert (@sherryboschert on Twitter)

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Filed under Cardiovascular Medicine, Dermatology, Endocrinology, Diabetes, and Metabolism, Family Medicine, Geriatric Medicine, IMNG, Infectious Diseases, Nephrology, Rheumatology, Uncategorized

Should Physicians Prescribe Positivity?

Scott Jordan Harris  is a U.K.-based blogger, editor, book author, movie critic, and sports writer. Remarkable, considering that he spends most of his time in bed. His primary diagnosis is myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), also known as chronic fatigue syndrome.

In a piece he wrote last week for the BBC’s website, Mr. Harris said that keeping a diary in which he focuses on the positive aspects of his life — at the suggestion of a doctor – keeps him “sane.”

©froglegs/Fotolia.com

“My depression told me my existence was filthy and barren…. After a few months of storing up the previously unrecorded richness of my life, my diary simply disproved that. I knew from re-reading the pages I’d written that I was doing interesting things — and I began to ensure I kept doing them simply to have something to write about. The diary was better than therapy; it pushed me forward through mental pain that had been holding me back.”

He added, “Doctors unaware of the realities of the lives of the chronically ill often suggest we waste what little energy we have noting down exactly how unwell we feel each day, how much we sleep and how little we do, so that they may study the results. These doctors are to be smiled at, and nodded to, and instantly ignored.”

So should physicians advise patients with chronic conditions to keep positive diaries?  I asked two experts.  Dr. Daniel Clauw, a rheumatologist who directs the University of Michigan’s Chronic Pain and Fatigue Research Center, referred me to his associate, Afton Hassett, Psy.D.

“That was a compelling story in the BBC and it actually does reflect my clinical and research experience as a pain psychologist,” Dr. Hassett told me.

Negative and positive affect (emotions) have been well-studied  in health in general and chronic and acute pain states in particular. There are numerous studies suggesting that positive affect plays an important role in pain outcomes. While few formal studies have evaluated the effectiveness of the exact intervention Mr. Harris described, there are studies   supporting the efficacy of similar positive psychology interventions for depression, Dr. Hassett said.

“Enhancing positive affect is likely a good thing for one’s mental and physical health. Sometimes just keeping a gratitude journal like the BBC article writer noted is all it takes. I always tell people to write down three different things each day for which you are grateful. After the first week or so you really start looking for the small wonders in your life: a great cup of coffee, a kind gesture from a complete stranger, the first tiny yellow flowers of spring.”

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons/4028mdk09/Creative Commons License

But Dr. David Spiegel, a psychiatrist who heads the Stanford University Center on Stress and Health, urges caution regarding positive psychology.   “I think the drumbeat for upbeat can be a little overwhelming… I agree with [Mr. Harris] that just focusing on how bad you feel you can dig yourself into a pit, but at the same time you can’t deny your feelings. The worst thing you can do to a depressed person is to tell them to cheer up.”

However, Dr. Spiegel, who works with breast cancer patients, noted that “you can help them by saying let’s give dimension to what’s bothering you, but also put that in perspective, and see other things that are good, that are positive. So it’s not one or the other…Happiness is not the absence of sadness.”

Dr. Spiegel said that advising patients with chronic conditions to keep a diary in general is an “interesting idea,” and that there is a literature base  for the medical benefits of journaling.

He advised that physicians suggest to their patients, “See if it helps you to have a daily journal of your journey through this illness, what your problems were and what your little victories were, and what you did that helped you deal with it and get beyond it.”

—Miriam E. Tucker (@MiriamETucker on Twitter)

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Drug Makers Go High-Tech to Prevent Opioid Abuse

Daytona 500 practice run (U.S. Air Force photo by Larry McTighe via Wikimedia Commons)

In the heart of Appalachia, there have long been doughty renegades who prefer not to pay taxes on their whiskey (also known as moonshine or a potential substance of abuse). These ingenious individuals have continually come up with imaginative ways to distill and distribute their products, while evading law enforcement (also known as revenuers). In fact, one of America’s favorite pastime — NASCAR — was born of the need of moonshiners to outrun the revenuers.

These days though, the game is being played the other way around.  Drugmakers, with encouragement from the government, are coming up with some pretty cool ways to prevent the abuse and misuse of opioids and other prescription drugs, which have become another of American’s favorite pastimes. In 2009, 16 million Americans age 12 and older had taken a prescription pain reliever, tranquilizer, stimulant, or sedative for nonmedical purposes at least once in the year prior to being surveyed, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

Dr. Lynn Webster discussed some innovative technologies to prevent opioid misuse at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Pain Medicine. So what’s on the horizon?

Approved in 2010, Exalgo is an extended-release formulation of hydromorphone that is indicated for once-daily administration for the management of moderate-to-severe pain in opioid-tolerant patients requiring continuous, around-the-clock opioid analgesia for an extended period of time. The drug uses a new technology – osmotic-controlled release oral delivery system (OROS) — which uses osmosis to attract water in the body to the inside of the capsule to trigger release of hydromorphone. It takes about 6 hours for the drug to release effective levels of hydromorphone and 4-5 days of use to reach a steady state of the drug in the body, said Dr. Webster.

Oxycontin abuse (courtesy of 51fifty via Wikimedia Commons)

Acurox is an oral immediate-release oxycodone tablet with a proposed indication for the relief of moderate to severe pain. Acurox uses another new technology, this one designed to deter misuse and abuse by intentional swallowing of excess quantities of tablets, intravenous injection of dissolved tablets, and nasal snorting of crushed tablets.

Collegium Pharmaceutical is developing an extended-release opioid formulation using DETERx technology to thwart abuse. Crushing or chewing prior to ingestion is a commonly used method of abusing oxycodone. Company studies have demonstrated that the plasma profile for the new DETERx formulation pill, when chewed, was bioequivalent to the taking the pill whole and as intended. This suggests that attempting to breakdown the sustained-release microspheres by chewing would not result in a meaningful increase in plasma level.
“It’s an abuse-resistant formulation, in that [potential abusers]can’t extract more than is intended for drug delivery,” said Dr. Webster.

Perhaps the most interesting and impressive technology is being developed by PharmacoFore. According to the company, the delivery system’s developer, the novel Bio-Activated Molecular Delivery (Bio-MD) technology effectively deters prescription drug abuse at a molecular level. “This technology does not involve the reformulation of existing opioid drugs in physical matrices that are easily circumvented by simple extraction methods. Our opioid Bio-MD systems are “activated” to release clinically effective opioid drugs only when exposed to the correct physiologic conditions (i.e., ingested).”

The system uses a mechanism “that locks in the amount of release of an opioid from a moiety, which is attached to a molecule … it can be any opioid … it’s an inert compound until it’s activated to be released,” said Dr. Webster. Essentially, the opioid molecule is attached to this delivery compound, which is “kind of like a clock. The intrinsic trypsin in our GI tract will activate that clock, which will cause a process to begin … and it will allow that drug to be released.” The “clock” compound determines how much time it will take for the active compound to be released and can be attached to any opioid. “It’s very early on though,” cautioned Dr. Webster. This molecular delivery system is in phase I trials.

Moonshine still in Knox County, Tennessee photographed by TVA in 1936 (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Still, if the drug companies are able to get these technologies approved, we could see a drop in prescription drug abuse. It remains to be seen if there will be a corresponding increase in moonshine.

Kerri Wachter

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Now tell me where ELSE it hurts…

When it comes to managing chronic pain, have physicians been looking in the wrong places? Physical findings in peripheral tissues rarely match up with patients’ reports of pain, or vice versa. Yet, clinicians typically examine only the area where the patient reports the pain, rather than looking at the whole body and considering that the patient’s perception of persistent pain may have a more central origin, according to pain expert Dr. Daniel J. Clauw.

Image by Kira.Belle via Flickr Creative Commons

“There is no chronic pain state where degree of damage or inflammation in the periphery correlates well with level of pain. Yet, the diagnostic algorithms or paradigms that everyone uses for treating chronic pain still assume that all pain is nociceptive. What we see in the peripheral tissues is not necessarily what our patients are experiencing,” Dr. Clauw said at last week at a 2-day scientific workshop on pain and musculoskeletal disorders, sponsored by the University of Michigan and held on the Bethesda, Md., campus of the National Institutes of Health.

That narrow focus has led many medical professionals to assume that when there is a disparity between peripheral findings and pain, the pain must be caused primarily by psychological factors. A prime example is fibromyalgia, still a somewhat controversial diagnosis. But as the first chronic pain syndrome identified as NOT being caused by peripheral inflammation or damage, fibromyalgia is “a metaphor for the centrality of chronic pain,” Dr. Clauw said.

So what should clinicians do differently? First, look beyond the immediate area the patient is complaining about. Has the patient had pain in other parts of the body? Experience frequent headaches? Have irritable bowel? Previous chronic neck pain, and now pain in the hip? “To me as a pain researcher, this is a blinking neon light that the person has a problem with pain processing. It may be that the particular symptom they’re coming in with is due to increased volume control setting rather than a pathologic problem in that part of the body,” Dr. Clauw told me.

And treatment? Ensuring adequate exercise and sleep and reducing stress are important yet underemphasized. Cognitive behavior therapy also has been shown to help. Pharmacologic therapy that acts centrally, rather than peripherally, may also be effective. The antidepressant duloxetine (Cymbalta), for example, is a serotonin/norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor that has been recently approved to treat osteoarthritis of the hip and low back pain, in addition to fibromyalgia and diabetic peripheral nerve pain.

A major challenge, Dr. Clauw believes, might be in getting clinicians to change their approach to pain. “It takes a long time for people trained in one way of thinking to think differently. This isn’t just a new drug or a new device. It’s a major paradigm shift.”

-Miriam E. Tucker (@MiriamETucker on Twitter)

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When RA Gets in the Way, and When It Doesn’t

There are people who don’t want to exercise, even though they are physically capable of doing so. Ironically, many people with rheumatoid arthritis want to exercise, but they are unable to do so because of chronic pain.

from flickr user dglider (creative commons)

The physical and psychological benefits of exercise are no secret, but in a study by Dr. Vibeke Strand of Stanford (Calif.) University, 49% of women reported that RA pain prevented them from participating in sports and exercising. Dr. Strand’s study, presented at the annual European Congress of Rheumatology (EULAR) in Rome  included nearly 2,000 women with RA.

Of these women, approximately two-thirds said that they experienced pain on a daily basis, including a majority of those who reported taking pain medication regularly. The study participants also reported that RA interfered with leisure activities and personal relationships, and even contributed to the deterioration of friendships and the end of marriages, Dr. Strand said in an interview.

The complete study data highlight the challenges of assessing and treating pain in patients with RA. The study results were limited by the use of self-reports of RA, but approximately 67% of the women said that they were constantly searching for new forms of pain relief.

Another event at the meeting highlighted how exercise empowers RA patients, including some who are severely disabled. An organization called Biking Against Rheumatism in Europe (BARIE) sponsored a multiday event in which a group of bikers, including individuals with severe RA riding on customized bikes, rode from Brussels to Rome, arriving on the first day of the meeting. Dr Strand’s data suggest that most of them were battling chronic pain. The goal of BARIE is to raise awareness of rheumatism. Ideally, more awareness will lead to more support for research, so more patients can live pain free for better physical and psychological health.

–Heidi Splete (on twitter @hsplete)

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Long-term Opioids Help Some Chronic Noncancer Pain

Photo by Flickr user rhomboideus under Creative Commons.

Long-term use of opioids to manage chronic noncancer pain (such as chronic back pain after failed surgery) has been on the rise in the past decade, but so have deaths from opioid overdose and abuse of prescription painkillers. It would be nice to know if chronic opioids do help people who desperately need relief from chronic pain, and what the risk for addiction or abuse is with long-term opioid use.

A new study begins — but only begins — to answer those questions. The Cochrane Collaboration reviewed the medical literature (see my story here) and came away underwhelmed with the small number of studies on long-term opioid use for noncancer pain, and the “crummy” quality of those studies — a description used by one of the pain experts that I interviewed.

The review found that many patients dropped out of studies on long-term opioid use (6%-23%, depending on whether they took opioids orally, transdermally, or intrathecally and whether they dropped out due to lack of pain relief or side effects). Most of the studies excluded patients with a history of drug abuse or addiction.

In those who finished the studies — a very select group at this point — chronic opioids continued to provide significant pain relief up to 48 months after starting therapy, and only 0.03% showed signs of addiction or took the drugs inappropriately. So many caveats were attached to the findings that it’s still unclear what many of the long-term effects may be. What about how the patient functions? Quality of life? Effects on patients who stop opioid therapy? Or use in the kinds of patients that worry clinicians when considering prescribing opioids for chronic noncancer pain–those who have psychiatric comorbidities or substance abuse issues, young patients, or those with ill-defined pain syndromes?

I foresee a lot of research ahead on improving and maximizing long-term use of opioids for chronic pain. As Dr. Perry Fine, president-elect of the American Academy of Pain Medicine, said, the study is “very encouraging, but it’s far from the whole story.”

–Sherry Boschert (@sherryboschert on Twitter)

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Complementary, My Dear Doctors

courtesy of flickr user gnomesmam, creative commons

From a workshop celebrating the 10th anniversary of the NIH’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, Bethesda, Md.:

Believe it or not, the National Institutes of Health has had a National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine for 10 years. To celebrate, they hosted a workshop with several speakers who addressed some big topics in complementary and alternative medicine.

What stuck out for me (pun intended) was Dr. Bruce R. Rosen of Harvard Medical School, who spoke about “Acupuncture, Pain, and Placebo.” Dr. Rosen cited some studies that showed a significant impact of acupuncture vs. no acupuncture for relieving chronic pain and pain associated with carpal tunnel syndrome, to name a few examples.

In one study (I didn’t get the citation) sham acupunture was as effective as the real thing, and both were significantly more effective than no acupuncture.

I’m not suggesting that real acupunture doesn’t have benefits. But this particular study reminded me of a similar study a few years ago in which sham knee surgery was as effective as the real thing. Looks like more evidence for the power of the placebo effect, or in this case, maybe just a more “hands-on” approach to pain management.

-Heidi Splete (@hsplete on twitter)
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