Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Prescribing opioids for chronic pain: avoiding pitfalls

- Kenny Lin, MD

For years, family physicians who treat patients with chronic nonterminal pain have been caught between a rock and a hard place: national surveys show that chronic pain is undertreated, but opioids often have serious adverse effects and can lead to dependence, addiction, and abuse. A recent AFP review article advised comprehensive assessments for patients with chronic pain, careful patient selection using an opioid risk tool, and use of written agreements that "outline appropriate intervals for follow-up, refill policies, participation in any indicated multimodal management plan (e.g., physical therapy, psychological treatment), use of only one prescriber and one pharmacy for all controlled medications, and prohibition of illicit substance use or prescription diversion." In July, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, in consultation with the AAFP, required that manufacturers of prescription opioids pay to support new voluntary educational programs for clinicians and patient education materials designed to reduce opioid misuse and its consequences.

An editorial in this week's Archives of Internal Medicine questioned whether there is a true difference between opioid "dependence" and "addiction," noting that a Washington state law that limited the amount of opioid that can be prescribed for chronic pain led to many patients experiencing persistent withdrawal effects after being tapered to lower doses. The authors concluded: "Dependence on opioid pain treatment is not, as we once believed, easily reversible; it is a complex physical and psychological state that may require therapy similar to addiction treatment, consisting of structure, monitoring, and counseling, and possibly continued prescription of opioid agonists." What has been your experience in prescribing opioids for patients with chronic nonterminal pain?