Fear of Addiction Means Chronic Pain Goes Untreated, according to an NPR story that aired last weekend. While there’s definitely truth to the headline, it obscures the nuances of physicians’ reluctance to prescribe opioids (a.k.a narcotics) for chronic pain in general and headache disorders specifically (particularly migraine).
Opioids were originally prescribed for short-term pain, like from surgery or an injury, or for use in end-of-life care. Chronic pain is a serious medical issue that is both under-treated and has limited treatment options, so it’s understandable that opioid painkillers filled that void, especially because opioids are the only source of relief for many people with chronic pain. Unfortunately, they began to be prescribed for long-term use before there were a lot of studies on their long-term effects. Now that research is catching up, this use is being questioned.
Beyond addiction, other potential problems for using opioids for chronic pain include opioid-induced hyperalgesia, tolerance and the systemic effects of long-term use. Opioid-induced hyperalgesia, when opioid use increases a person’s sensitivity to pain, is one concern. Tolerance — which requires taking increasingly higher doses of the medication for it to still be effective — is another. The repercussions of regular (and often increasingly higher) doses of opioids could have on the body’s systems should also be considered.
Headache disorders — and particularly migraine — have additional issues. Rebound headache (medication overuse headache) is the most widely addressed concern. In addition, the American Migraine Prevalence and Prevention study found that using opioids more than eight times a month can cause episodic migraine to transform into chronic. (Diana Lee recently reported that there may be a difference between short-acting opioids and long-acting ones and that long-acting opioids may be OK for long-term pain management for people with chronic migraine.) Headache specialists also believe opioids impair the efficacy of preventive medications.
On top of that, opioids aren’t even particularly effective for any type of head pain. In the video I shared last week, headache specialist Mark Green explained why:
“Part of the reason for that is there are fundamental differences in the chemistry of head pain compared to visceral pain. In the receptors subserving head pain, we really don’t have a lot of opioid receptors, so the upside for the use of opioids is rather low. That’s why we use, for example triptans and ergots. Those serotonin receptors are very well represented on those receptors that subserve headache.”
What do I get from all this?
- Boiling down concerns about opioid use to a fear of patients becoming addicted is an oversimplification.
- There are a lot of unknowns about opioid use for chronic pain. As more research is published, the less they seem like a good long-term solution.
- Head pain is different than bodily pain and migraine may different still.
- Chronic migraine isn’t a chronic pain disorder, nor are chronic cluster headaches. I don’t know where tension-type headache falls on the continuum, but I’m inclined to believe it’s more on the side of other types of headache disorders.
- Using opioids can significantly alter treatment for an underlying headache disorder.
- Mostly, I’m left with a lot of questions (and so are researchers and physicians).
I’m not anti-opioid, but all these unknowns plus the generally negative outlook of what we do know make me very, very cautious. Ideally, your headache specialist would be the prescriber, but fewer and fewer are willing to prescribe opioids (not out of fear of addiction or the DEA, but because of the ramifications for treating the condition you’re using opioids for in the first place). If your headache specialist won’t prescribe them, still be honest with them about how often you use them and at what dose — without that information, your specialist can’t treat your headache disorder properly.
Note: I’ve used words like “potentially” and “can” a lot in this post because not everyone’s the same. It’s important to be aware of the risks, but also to remember that not everyone will have all the same issues.