Chronic Opioid Therapy Guidelines Offer Direction for Physicians

by Kristin Thorson, Fibromyalgia Network Editor
Posted: February 27, 2009

While patients are rightfully concerned about not receiving adequate pain relief, physicians harbor fears about drug abuse, safety issues, and government oversight. New clinical guidelines for the use of chronic opioid therapy in chronic non-cancer pain patients, developed by consensus of the American Pain Society and the American Academy of Pain Medicine, may ease both patient and physician concerns.

The guidelines, published in the February issue of the Journal of Pain, offer a roadmap for physicians on how to safely prescribe opioids to patients with moderate to severe pain.* The authors specifically state that their report applies to patients with “chronic non-cancer pain conditions, including common conditions such as back pain, osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia, and headache.”

Throughout the guidelines, physicians are urged to evaluate their patients’ pain and function on a regular basis. And, if doctors are worried that a patient is abusing or misusing the prescribed opioid, they may need to reduce the time between scheduled office visits. In addition, physicians are encouraged to look at all of the available options for treating patients’ chronic pain, including the use of opioids, and it is emphasized that this class of medications will seldom provide sufficient pain control. This means that patients placed on opioids will likely need to be prescribed medications from other drug classes as well as non-drug therapies. And, physicians who do not have the skill-set to prescribe opioids need to coordinate their patients’ care with another doctor who is experienced in providing this therapy.

The American Pain Society emphasized the following three points to all its members this month:

  • The guidelines are comprehensive and evidenced-based to assist physicians in managing chronic opioid therapy, according to the American Pain Society President Charles Inturrisi, Ph.D.
  • “Regular monitoring of chronic opioid therapy patients is warranted because the therapeutic benefits of these medications are not static and can be affected by changes in the underlying pain condition, coexisting disease, or in psychological or social circumstances,” said Gilbert J. Fanciullo, M.D., director of the division of pain and palliative care at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center.
  • Cochair Perry Fine, M.D., professor of anesthesiology at the University of Utah Medical Center, added that doctors do not have to solely rely upon patient self reports. Pill counts, urine drug screening, family member or caregiver interviews, and prescription monitoring data may all be used to check for possible abuse or other opioid-related problems.

The message is clear that under most circumstances, there are reasonable ways for physicians to prescribe chronic opioid therapy for their patients in pain while emphasizing safety issues and minimizing side effects or the potential for drug misuse. The guidelines offer physicians 25 recommendations with detailed explanations on how to follow them—all to help doctors prescribe opioids to their chronic pain patients in a responsible fashion. In addition to the key points already made, here are other highlights from the published guidelines:

  • Clinicians may consider a trial of chronic opioid therapy (COT) for moderate to severe pain that is having an adverse impact on a patient’s function or quality of life as long as the therapeutic benefits outweigh the risks (abuse, misuse and addiction). Three different patient screening tools (questionnaires that are easy to administer) are included with the guidelines to help doctors assess potential risks associated with COT for a given patient (the SOAPP, the ORT, and the DIRE).
  • Before initiating a trial of COT, physicians should provide their patients with informed consent, which alerts patients to all of the potential risks associated with taking opioids. After informed consent, doctors should discuss with their patients a COT management plan that outlines the goals of therapy, expectations, monitoring requirements, etc. A sample consent form and management plan are included in the guideline.
  • Initial treatment with an opioid should be regarded as a therapeutic trial to determine if COT is effective. If the first opioid does not work or produces adverse side effects, other types of opioids may be tried, but patients need to keep in mind that opioids are prescribed on a trial basis.
  • Physicians should anticipate, identify, and track common opioid-associated side effects. Constipation is the most frequent problem, and unfortunately it does not go away or get better with continued use of the medication. With this in mind, doctors should recommend stool softeners or increased fiber intake when issuing patients an opioid prescription. Nausea or vomiting may occur but tends to diminish over a few days. If it lasts longer, doctors can prescribe a medication to treat this side effect. Sedation and clouded thinking usually goes away with continued opioid use, while reduction in sex hormones may appear down the road with COT. If a patient begins to experience a decrease in libido, sex hormones can be checked and supplemented if necessary. Other side effects may also occur, so patients and physicians need to be on the lookout for them.
  • Chronic pain is often a complex condition and physicians who prescribe COT should routinely promote other therapies, such as psychotherapy (pain can be awful to cope with), physical and occupational therapies for restoring function, and other non-drug approaches in addition to prescribing other non-opioid medications. The purpose of this recommendation is to treat the whole person and improve the odds that a patient with chronic pain will achieve a more fulfilling life.
  • Doctors need to counsel patients prior to starting COT and continue until a stable dose is reached or if the dose is later increased as the patients’ cognitive skills may be impaired for a short period of time. If clouded thought processes do occur, driving should temporarily be avoided … so patients might want to start an opioid on a weekend when they do not have to drive. After a stable dose is reached, there is no evidence to suggest that patients on COT should be restricted from driving or engaging in most work activities.

The opioid guidelines give your doctor the “how to” advice for prescribing opioids, including sample copies of patient screening questionnaires, a consent form, management plan, and full details on how to responsibly prescribe opioids. However, they also assume that the prescribing physician is already knowledgeable about issues concerning this class of medications (i.e., the guidelines cannot possibly convert a novice into an expert on COT). Neither the patient nor physician should feel awkward about the consent and management forms, or random urine tests. Doctors who follow these guidelines should be better equipped to implement opioid therapies for their chronic pain patients (such as fibromyalgia) in a safe manner.

* Chou R, Fanciullo GJ, Fine PG, et al. J Pain 10(2):113-130, 2009.

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