Posted tagged ‘opioids’

On addiction, psychiatric disorders and primary care: A Q&A with a Stanford clinical psychologist

April 6, 2017

Photo by Eric Norris

Resolving America’s opioid crisis is clearly more difficult than just saying “no” to opioid use.

A key complication is that many opioid addicts also have mental health issues, said Mark McGovern, PhD, a professor of psychiatry and behavior sciences who joined Stanford in January. McGovern’s research focuses on patients with both psychiatric and addiction disorders. I connected with him via email.

What inspired you to focus on patients with both psychiatric and substance use disorders?

“In my personal experience and clinical practice, it seemed obvious that many people who had a problem with alcohol or drugs also had a mental health issue, whether it was depression, anxiety or something else. When I entered the world of research, the epidemiological and clinical prevalence data verified my anecdotal experience. About 70 percent of patients with a diagnosis of a drug or alcohol disorder have another psychiatric disorder. And of those with a psychiatric disorder, approximately 50 percent have had a substance use problem at some point. Ironically, our mental health care system, including our education and training programs, are organized as if people have one or the other problem but not both. It turns out that if a person has both types of disorders, their life outcomes are significantly worse. This struck me as an enormous health-care disparity.”

How do you treat these patients?

“I spent the past 20 years designing interventions that address these ‘co-occurring disorders’ within the same treatment course. We worked with systems of care — including large organizations, counties, states, tribes and nations — to reconfigure services to provide integrated care. These efforts included the use of both psychotropic and addiction medications, integrated combined therapies, and changes in attitude, philosophy, organizational structure and financing.

We need to address these behavioral health issues in both primary care and specialty settings.

Common problems such as depression, anxiety, alcohol and drug use disorders are ubiquitous in primary care settings. As with any medical condition, early intervention before disease progression results in better outcomes. Further, most people with these conditions don’t seek specialty care, but typically do see their doctor for other problems or routine health-care visits. Unfortunately, substance use disorders typically aren’t screened for in primary care, and they are currently addressed in only the most obvious and severe cases. People at Stanford are just beginning to develop an innovative ‘unified model of behavioral health integration’ that fully addresses the complex array of behavioral health conditions.”

How do you use addiction medications?

“Before I arrived at Stanford, I was at Dartmouth where I consulted with the states of northern New England — Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine — to combat the opioid addiction epidemic, including heroin and prescription narcotics. There are three FDA-approved medications for opioid addiction: methadone, buprenorphine and naltrexone. Unfortunately, even though they are very effective, these medicines are not widely available to people with opioid addiction. We worked most closely with physician practice groups across Vermont to prescribe buprenorphine and naltrexone and deliver high quality care. For example, we used learning collaboratives to engage physicians, improve access to buprenorphine and reduce the variability between different doctors. Overdose death rates in all New England states except Vermont have continued to rise, whereas Vermont’s has decreased since 2015. And the number of Vermonters receiving addiction medications has grown from 800 in 2013 to close to 5000 today.

I remember meeting my patient Bobby (a pseudonym) who was a general contractor with a successful business. He injured his back in 2004 and was prescribed Percocet for pain by his primary care physician. Gradually, he noticed that he needed more medication to get the same pain relief, emotional relief and stress reduction. Over time, Bobby shuffled from doctor to doctor to obtain opioid prescriptions allegedly for his family members. He transitioned to heroin by 2006. Prior to his opioid addiction, Bobby had no history of illegal activities and no substance problem. Bobby’s wife did some online research and learned about addiction medications. They were both drawn to the possibility of buprenorphine because he might be able to get it from a ‘regular doctor’ without going to rehab and ruining his business. Bobby was seen in our clinic and responded extremely well to the medication, and discontinued his use of other opioids. Interestingly, he said that he still had occasional pain but it was more important to be ‘functional than pain free.’”

What advice do you give to trainees?

“When educating medical students, psychiatric residents and fellows and clinical psychology interns at Stanford, I advise them to:

  • Understand addiction as a chronic medical condition that has its basis in the brain, even though its manifestations radiate across the person’s life, relationships and world.
  • Empathize with the person who is suffering with this condition, who may not be able to accept or describe it clearly, but who is nonetheless struggling to control It’s not their choice; it is not their ‘Plan A’ in life.
  • Know that effective treatments are available, and that you can provide them.
  • Have high hopes that recovery is possible for patients with addiction.”

This is a reposting of my Scope blog story, courtesy of Stanford School of Medicine.

Targeting protein may help researchers improve pain medication

January 24, 2017

headache-1910649_1280For many people, living with chronic pain is a way of life. Unfortunately, existing pain medications are not always effective and can be addictive, which has led to an opioid epidemic in the United States.

In their search for better therapies to manage pain, researchers are investigating the underlying mechanisms that signal and control pain in the body. A central component of this pain pathway is a protein called Nav1.7, which is present at the endings of pain-sensing nerves. Nav1.7 is known to help alert your brain when your body encounters potentially harmful stimuli, like when your hand touches a hot pan.

Past research demonstrated that people with non-functioning Nav1.7 don’t feel pain. This discovery led to the development of drugs that block Nav1.7 activity. Unfortunately, these drugs didn’t really work. It turns out that the role of Nav1.7 is more complicated than first thought.

“It seemed so obvious and simple, but it was not so simple,” said Tim Hucho, PhD, a neuroscientist at the University Hospital Cologne in Germany, in a recent Science News story.

Researchers have now found that Nav1.7 plays a second role — triggering the production and release of natural opioid compounds, like endorphins, that suppress the transmission of pain signals to the brain. People with non-functioning Nav1.7 do not feel pain and have increased expression of the genes in charge of making natural opioids.

The news story explains:

“An investigation of rat and mice nerve cells reveals the tug-of-war between Nav1.7’s pain-promoting and pain-relieving powers. Cells with nonfunctioning Nav1.7 have amped up activity in the cellular machinery that kicks off pain relief, Hucho and colleagues report. They suggest that Nav1.7 acts like the axis point in a playground seesaw. When the pain-promoting side is dialed down, the pain-relieving side becomes more dialed up than usual, and cells make more of their in-house opioids.”

This research suggests a new approach to pain management: using opiates in combination with a Nav1.7 blocker to make opiates more effective and reduce their associated side effects. However, a lot more research is needed before this work can be translated into treating people with chronic pain.

This is a reposting of my Scope blog story, courtesy of Stanford School of Medicine.

The Opioid Crisis: Medicine X panelists explore the complexity of managing chronic pain

September 19, 2016
britt-johnson-on-stage-1024x683

Photograph courtesy of Medicine X

Saturday’s Medicine X session on the opioid crisis focused on how best to manage the chronic pain felt by millions of Americans every day. The session engaged panelists with different perspectives, including a patient in chronic pain and physicians struggling to decide when to prescribe opioids. All the panelists recognized that opioid addiction is a serious and pervasive problem, but they also warned that proper pain management is a complex issue.

Jeanmarie Perrone, MD, professor of emergency medicine at the Hospital of University of Pennsylvania, told the audience, “I need good pain management to work in the emergency room. We need these drugs, we just need to be conscientious about it.”

ePatient Britt Johnson, a Medicine X board member and owner of The Hurt Blogger, understands this all too well. She shared her story of needing opioids to function due to severe pain from spondyloarthropathy and rheumatoid arthritis, which she’s had for most of her life.

Johnson addressed the media’s oversimplification of the issue. “Pain is not politically correct,” she said. “The media tells me that all opioids are all bad. The media makes everyone believe that I, too, am struggling with addiction. And the media lumps me in with statistics on heroin usage and overdose deaths.” She went on to say that she winds up “feeling guilt and shame for constantly experiencing pain. And I’m reminded constantly how heart breaking overdose stories are, which they are. But my story is not connected to those stories.”

Pain expert Frank Lee, MD, agreed that “we’re starting to stereotype chronic opioid patients as heroin addicts and physicians as pill pushers.” Lee described the impact of this on his practice and how it increases his risk if he prescribes a large or moderate dose of opioids to a patient. “If I just follow the CDC guidelines and tell the patient that I can’t prescribe this medication, it makes my life easier,” he said.

Lee shared a story about one of his patients who recently died. In her 70s, Mary had severe rheumatoid arthritis and three back surgeries. When he “inherited” Mary from a different pain doctor, she was on massive doses of opioids — close to 300 mg morphine daily equivalents, several times the recommended dose. “Maybe I was naïve, but I went through all the dangers of opioids. I told her, ‘We need to come down on your dose.’ She was hesitant, but she said ‘if you really need to do this, okay.’ During the next three months, we went down from almost 300 mg to about 70 mg. She ended up in the emergency room twice, because she just couldn’t take it. It hurt too much,” he said. “She cared enough to try what I recommended and I felt like I owed her the chance. We went back to the insane amount of her opioids and she did well.” However, Lee expressed his concern over what the high opioid doses did to her body.

Lee and others discussed the need to distinguish between patients like Johnson and Mary from those who are prone to opioid addiction. Sean Mackey, MD, PhD, chief of the division of pain medicine at Stanford, declared the need for more quality data on pain — through programs like the National Pain Strategy — to help identify the risk factors of the people that are more vulnerable. Cynthia Reilly, director of the prescription drug abuse project at The Pew Charitable Trusts, professed that prescription drug monitoring programs are part of the solution.

The panel agreed that another solution is to make integrated medicine options more affordable. “At the pharmacy I get a bottle of 60 Percocet for ten dollars, yet I have to pay out of pocket for massage, acupuncture, heat therapy, ice packs, cognitive behavioral therapy, pain psychologists and anything else,” said Johnson. “Opioids have the cheapest barrier to access, yet raising the price of opioids is not the answer; putting complimentarily pain therapies on an even playing field is.”

Although mostly harmonious, the panel discussion became heated near the end when a member of the audience interrupted, asking to hear more from Johnson. Feeling that she was being left out of the conversation, she said, “I’m sitting here and the discussion about the pain crisis is happening around me, when I’m right here and it could be happening with me. We could be having a real discussion here.” The panel concluded that we need to do a better job bringing everyone together with different perspectives.

This is a reposting of my Scope blog story, courtesy of Stanford School of Medicine.


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