Letters from Maine

The war on pain


When your peer group is dominated by folks in their early 70s, conversations at dinner parties and lobster bakes invariably morph into storytelling competitions between the survivors of recent hospitalizations and medical procedures. I try to redirect this tedious and repetitive chatter with a topic from my standard collection of conversation re-starters that includes “How about those Red Sox?” and “How’s your granddaughter’s soccer season going?” But sadly I am not always successful.

Often embedded in these tales of medical misadventure are stories of unfortunate experiences with pain medications. Sometimes the story includes a description of how prescribed pain medication created symptoms that were far worse than the pain it was intended to treat. Vomiting, constipation, and “feeling goofy” are high on the list of complaints.

Dr. William G. Wilkoff

As a result of these unpleasant side effects or in many cases simply because they didn’t feel the need to take the prescribed medication, most of my friends have accumulated a significant stash of unused opioids. With a quick calculation on a cocktail napkin, I once calculated that a dozen of my friends could keep the addicted population of a small town happy for a week or two with the painkillers they have in their medicine cabinets and sock drawers.

These caches of unused opioids, many of which were never needed in the first place, are evidence of why our health care has become so expensive, and also represent the seeds from which the addiction epidemic has grown. Ironically, they also are collateral damage from an unsuccessful and sometimes misguided war on pain.

It isn’t clear exactly when or where the war on pain began, but I’m sure those who fired the first shots were understandably concerned that many patients with incurable and terminal conditions were suffering needlessly because their pain was being under-treated. Coincidently came the realization that the sooner we could get postoperative patients on their feet and taking deep breaths, the fewer complications we would see. And the more adequately we treated their pain, the sooner we could get those patients moving and breathing optimally.

In a good faith effort to be more “scientific” about pain management, patients were asked to rate their pain and smiley face charts appeared. Unfortunately, somewhere along the line came the mantra that not only should no patient’s pain go unmeasured, but no patient’s pain should go unmedicated.

The federal government entered the war when the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services issued the directive that hospitals ask patients who were being discharged if their pain had been well controlled and how often did the hospital staff do what they could to ease their pain? The answers to these questions, along with others, was collected and used in assessing a hospital’s quality of care and determining its level of reimbursement.

So far, there is insufficient data to determine how frequently this directive on pain management induced hospitals to over-prescribe medication, but it certainly hasn’t been associated with a decline in opioid abuse. It is reasonable to suspect that this salvo by the government has resulted in some collateral damage as it encouraged a steady flow of unused and unnecessary prescription narcotics out of the hospital and on to the streets.

The good news is that there has been enough concern voiced about the unintended effect of these pain management questions that the CMS has decided to eliminate financial pressure clinicians might feel to over-prescribe medications by withdrawing the questions from the patient discharge questionnaire.

The bad news is that we continue to fight the war on pain with a limited arsenal. As long as clinicians simply believe that no pain should go unmedicated, they will continue to miss opportunities to use other modalities such as counseling, physical therapy, and education that can be effective without the risk of collateral damage. Instead of asking the patient (who may not know the answer), we should be asking ourselves if we have been doing everything we could to help the patient deal with his pain. The answer is often not written on prescription pads.

Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.”

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