The CDC has released important information on dealing with the prescription opioid pain medication and heroin epidemic. Opioids are a class of drugs that include pain medications such as morphine, oxycodone, hydrocodone, methadone, fentanyl and others and the illegal drug heroin. I’ve spoken a great deal about this problem in various other posts (see here here here and especially here and here). Just to summarize some of most disturbing trends: the US is experiencing a surge in deaths due to overdose on opioids (overdoses/year due to opioids are now greater than fatalities from car crashes), virtually all demographics (age groups, income levels, gender, race) are affected, and many people addicted to opioid pain pills transition to heroin and as such, a huge increase in heroin abuse is also occurring; teenagers and adolescents are especially hard hit. The CDC’s report, released on Friday, March 18 provides a thorough review of the clinical evidence around prescription opioid pain medications and makes 12 recommendations to help control the over-prescription of these powerful drugs in attempt to reduce the amount of overdose deaths and addiction.
I finally got around to reading the whole thing and am happy to summarize its main analyses and findings. While the report is intended for primary health care providers and clinicians, the report’s findings are important for anyone suffering from short or long-term pain and the risks vs benefits posed by opioids.
But before I dive into the meat of the report, I wanted to clarify an important issue about addiction to prescription opioids. A false narrative exists that those suffering from addiction are “drug seekers” and it is this group of people that is duping doctors in prescribing them too many opioids while good patients that take opioids as directed are not over dosing or becoming addicted. It’s important to remember that opioids are so powerful anyone that takes them runs the risk of overdosing or becoming addicted after repeated use. Most people suffering from addiction and overdoses during the current prescription opioid epidemic are people that used opioids medically and not for recreation. This is true for youths prescribed opioids for a high-school sports injury, and older patients prescribed opioids for chronic back pain, and many other “regular” people. The CDC released this report to help fight back against the over-prescription of opioids and the severe risks that accompany their use. Doctors and patients alike need to be aware of the risks vs benefits of opioids if they decide to use them for pain therapy.
The CDC’s report had three primary goals:
- Identify relevant clinical questions related to prescribing of opioid pain medications.
- Evaluate the clinical and contextual evidence that addresses these questions
- Prepare recommendations based on the evidence.
Two types of evidence were used in preparation of the report: direct clinical evidence and indirect evidence that supports various aspects of the clinical evidence (contextual evidence). Studies included in the analysis ranged from high quality randomized control studies (the gold standard for evaluating clinical effectiveness) to more observational studies (not strong, direct evidence but useful information nonetheless).
The report identified five central questions regarding the concerns over opioids:
- Is there evidence of effectiveness of opioid therapy in long-term treatment of chronic pain?
- What are the risks of opioids?
- What differences in effectiveness between different dosing strategies (immediate release versus long-acting/extended release)?
- How effective are the existing systems for predicting the risks of opioids (overdose, addiction, abuse or misuse) and assessing those risks in patients?
- What is the effect of prescribing opioids for acute pain on long-term use?
Based on a close examination of the clinical evidence from a number of published studies, the CDC found the following answer to these questions.
- There is no evidence supporting the benefits of opioids at managing chronic pain. Opioids are only useful for acute (less than 3 days) pain and for cancer pain or end-or-life pain treatment.
- Opioids have numerous risks such as abuse and addiction, overdose, fractures due to falling in some older patients, car crashes due to impairments, and other problems. The longer opioids are used the greater these risks.
- There is no difference in effectiveness between immediate release opioids and long-acting or extended release formulation. The evidence suggests the risk for overdose is greater with long-acting and extended-release opioids.
- No currently available monitoring methods or systems are capable of completely predicting or identifying risk for overdose, dependence, abuse, or addiction but severak methods may be effective at helping to evaluate these risk factors.
- The use of opioids for treating acute pain increases the likelihood that they will be sued long-term (most likely because of tolerance and dependence).
The CDC also examined what they called contextual evidence or studies that didn’t directly answer the primary clinical questions but still provided valuable, if indirect, information about treatment of pain with/without opioids.
- Non-medication based therapies like physical therapy, exercise therapy, psychological therapies, etc. can be effective at treating chronic pain for a number of conditions.
- Non-opioid pain medications such as acetaminophen, NSAIDs, Cox-2 inhibitors, anti-convulsants, and anti-depressants (in some instances) were also effective in treating chronic pain for various conditions and have fewer dangers than opioids.
- Long-acting opioids increase the risk for overdose and addiction. Higher doses of opioids also increase the risk for overdose.
- Co-prescription of opioids with benzodiazepines greatly increases the risk of overdoses.
- Many doctors are unsure of how to talk to their patients about opioids and their benefits vs risks and most patients don’t know what opioids even are.
- The opioid epidemic costs billions of dollars in medical and associated costs. Its estimated costs due to treatment of overdose alone is $20.4 billion.
Many other findings and important pieces are information were reported but too many to list here.
Based on all results of the analysis the CDC came up with 12 recommendations in three broad categories. I’ll briefly discuss each recommendation.
Category 1: Determining when to initiate or continue opioids for chronic pain.
- Recommendation 1: Non-pharmacologic (medication-based) therapy and non-opioid pharmacologic therapy are preferred for chronic pain.
- The risks of overdose and addiction from long-term use of opioids is very high and benefits for actually treating pain are very low for most people. Therefore, other safer and more-effective treatments should be use first. The discussion of the risks vs benefits needs to be made clear by the patient’s doctor.
- Recommendation 2: Before starting opioid therapy for chronic pain, clinicians should establish treatment goals with all patients, including realistic goals for pain and function
- Opioids should be used for the shortest amount of time possible but if used for a long-term treatment, at the lowest effective dose.
- If a patient suffers from an overdose or seems as if dependence or addiction is developing, a patient may need to be tapered off of opioids.
- Recommendation 3: Before starting and periodically during opioid therapy, clinicians should discuss with patients known risks and realistic benefits of opioid therapy.
- The risks are high for the use of opioids and it is necessary for doctors to keep their patients informed about these risks.
- Doctors should be “be explicit and realistic about expected benefits from opioids, explaining that while opioids can reduce pain during short-term use, there is no good evidence that opioids improve pain or function with long-term use, and that complete relief of pain is unlikely.”
Category 2: Opioid selection, dosage, duration, follow-up, and discontinuation.
- Recommendation 4: When starting opioid therapy, clinicians should prescribe immediate-release opioids instead of extended-release or long-acting opioids.
- There appears to be no difference in effectiveness at treating pain between the different types of opioids but the long-acting opioids come with a greater risk for overdose and dependence.
- Long-acting opioids should be reserved for cancer pain or end-of-life pain.
- It’s important to note that “abuse-deterrent” does not mean that there is no risk for abuse, dependence, or addiction. These types of formulations are generally to prevent intravenous use (shooting up with a needle) but most problems with opioids occur as a result of normal, oral use.
- Recommendation 5: When opioids are started, clinicians should prescribe the lowest effective dosage.
- The higher the dose the greater the risk. A low dose may be sufficient to control the pain without risk for overdose or the development of dependence.
- Opioids are often most effective in the short-term and may not need to be continued after 3 days.
- If dosage needs to be increased, changes in pain and function in the patient should be re-evaluated afterwards to determine if a benefit has occurred.
- Patients currently on high-dose long-term opioids for chronic pain may want to consider tapering down their dosage.
- Tapering opioids can be challenging can take a long-time due to the physical and psychological dependence. Tapering should be done slowly to and the best course of dosage should be determined specifically for the patient.
- Recommendation 6: Long-term opioid use often begins with treatment of acute pain. When opioids are used for acute pain, clinicians should prescribe the lowest effective dose of immediate-release opioids and should prescribe no greater quantity than needed.
- Evidence suggests that using an opioid for acute pain can start a patient down a path of long-term use. This should attempted to be avoided by using a low dose if opioid is selected to treat acute pain.
- Acute pain can often be effectively managed without opioids with non-medication-based therapies (like exercise, water aerobics, physical therapy, etc.) or non-opioid medications (like acetaminophen or NSAIDs).
- Recommendation 7: Clinicians should evaluate benefits and harms with patients within 1-4 weeks of starting opioid therapy for chronic pain or of dose escalation.
- Opioids are most effective for the first three days and possible up to a week. If long-term therapy is decided upon, treatment should regularly be reassessed and reevaluated (at least every 3 months for long-term therapy).
Category 3: Assessing risks and addressing harms of opioid use.
- Recommendation 8: Before starting and periodically during continuation of opioid therapy, clinicians should evaluate risk factors for opioid-related harms. Clinicians should incorporate into the management plan strategies to mitigate risk, including considering offering naloxone.
- Specific risk factors for the specific condition that patient is using opioids for should be considered when developing the treatment plan.
- Naloxone blocks the effects of opioids and can immediately revive someone that has experienced an overdose. Naloxone should be offered to patients if a patient is using opioids at high-dose for long-term therapy or previously suffered an overdose.
- Recommendation 9: Clinicians should review the patient’s history of controlled substance prescription using state prescription drug monitoring program (PDMP) data to determine whether a patient is receive opioid dosages or dangerous combinations that put him or her at risk for overdose.
- PDMPs are state-run databases that collect information on controlled prescription drugs dispensed by pharmacies and in some states, physicians too.
- While the clinical evidence was unclear if PDMPs were accurate at predicting overdose or addiction, the contextual evidence supported that “most fatal overdoses were associated with patients receiving opioids from multiple prescribers and/or with patients receiving high total daily opioid dosage.”
- PDMP should be consulted before beginning opioid therapy and during the course of treatment if used for long-term therapy and this data should be discussed with the patient.
- However, PDMP data must be used cautiously as some patients are turned away from treatment that would otherwise have benefited.
- Recommendation 10: (not a general recommendation but to be considered on a patient-by-patient basis) When prescribing opioids for chronic pain, clinicians should use urine drug testing before starting opioid therapy and consider urine drug testing at least annually to assess for prescribed medications as well as other controlled prescription drugs and illicit drugs.
- Urine drug tests can reveal information about potential risks due to combinations with other drugs not reported by the patient (e.g. benzodiazepines, heroin).
- Urine testing should become standard practice and should be done prior to starting opioids for chronic therapy.
- Clinicians should make it clear that testing is intended for patient safety and is not intended to deprive the patient of therapy unnecessarily.
- Recommendation 11: Clinicians should avoid prescribing opioid pain medication and benzodiazepines concurrently whenever possible.
- Strong evidence suggests that many overdoses occurred in patients prescribed both benzodiazepines and opioids. The two should never be prescribed together if at all possible.
- Recommendation 12: Clinicians should offer or arrange evidence-based treatment (usually medication-assisted treatment with buprenorphine or methadone in combination with behavioral therapies) for patients with opioid abuse disorder (addiction).
- Many patients using opioids for chronic pain now may have become physically and psychologically addicted to them and should be offered treatment (estimated at 3-26% of patients using opioids for chronic pain therapy).
- Methadone and buprenorphine are proven, safe, and effective-treatments that retain patients in treatment and that satisfy an opioid addict’s cravings, prevent relapse to abusing opioids/heroin, and allow the patient to live a normal life (read my blog post on methadone).
- Behavioral therapy/individual counseling in combination with medication-based treatment may improve positive benefits of treatment even further.
- However, access to these medications can be extremely limited in some communities due to availability (methadone is restricted to clinics and clinicians need certification in order to prescribe buprenorphine) or cost (treatment often is not covered by insurance).
- Urine testing or PDMP data may help to reveal if a patient has become addicted and if so, treatment should be arranged.
In Summary, the main takeaways from the report are:
- Opioids are associated with many risks such as overdose, abuse, dependence, addiction, and others (e.g. fractures from falling or car-crashes due to impairment).
- No evidence exists that opioids are effective for treatment of chronic pain (with the exception of cancer and end-of-life pain).
- Opioids are most effective for short term (3-7 days) and in immediate-release formulations.
- Non-medication based therapies and non-opioid medications are preferred for treatment of chronic pain.
- Doctors need to clearly explain the risks vs benefits of opioid therapy with their patients.
- If decided as the best course of action for a particular patient, opioid therapy needs to be repeated re-evaluated to make sure it is still working to alleviate pain.
- The prescription drug monitoring programs are useful tools that should be consulted prior to beginning therapy in order to help determine a patient’s history with opioids and risk for abuse or overdose.
- Naloxone should be made available to patients using opioids for long-term therapy in order to prevent possible overdoses.
- Access to medication-based treatments (methadone or buprenorphine) for dependent individuals should be provided.
In 1995 Purdue pharmaceuticals released OxyContin (oxycodone, one of the most common prescription opioid pain medications) and launched an enormous push for doctors to use opioids as the primary treatment for chronic pain. The enormous surge in in prescriptions of oxycodone (500% increase from 1999-2011) followed this marketing campaign. One of the most disturbing aspects revealed by the CDC’s report is that despite this surge in prescriptions, there is a complete lack of data on the effectiveness of opioids for long-term chronic pain therapy.
To be fair though, “Big Pharma” is not the sole culprit in this crisis. One argument is that pharma was responding to the need of clinicians for an increased demand by patients for management of chronic pain. It is very disturbing though that the push for the use of opioids for long-term management was initiated without any supporting evidence. This is another example of how medicine must be guided by evidence-based principles and not on personal beliefs and values or medical tradition and culture.
It’s important to remember that some patients do tolerate opioids well and these patients may find them beneficial at treating their chronic pain condition. The guidelines do stress frequent reevaluation of the benefits vs risks of opioids and for some patients benefits will outweigh the risks.
Finally, the CDC’s guidelines are not legally binding. These are recommendations and not laws or regulations. This means no doctors are not legally required to comply with any of the CDC’s recommendations. Hopefully some or all of these recommendations will be formalized into formal laws and regulations because many of them are extremely important in regulating these powerful and potentially dangerous drugs.
(Also check out the Diane Rehm Show’s hour-long discussion of the report. As usual, the show offers a high quality analysis and discussion from a panel of experts.)