A 57-year-old man is admitted to the hospital with new back pain, which has been getting worse over the past 6 days. He had been diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer in mid-2017 and underwent treatment with a platinum-based double therapy.
The man also has a history of heroin use – as recently as two years earlier – and he was divorced not long ago. He has been using an old prescription for Vicodin to treat himself, taking as many as 10-12 tablets a day.
This man is an example of the kind of complicated patient hospitalists are called on to treat – complex pain in an era when opioid abuse is considered a public scourge. How is a hospitalist to handle a case like this?
Pain cases are far from the only types of increasingly complex, often palliative cases in which hospitalists are being asked to provide help. Care for the elderly is also becoming increasingly difficult as the U.S. population ages and as hospitalists step in to provide care in the absence of geriatricians. .
Pain management in the opioid era and the need for new approaches in elderly care were highlighted at the Hospital Medicine 2018 annual conference, with experts drawing attention to subtleties that are often overlooked in these sometimes desperate cases.
, medical director of palliative care at Regions Hospital in Minneapolis, said the complex problems of the 57-year-old man with back pain amounted to an example of “pain’s greatest hits.”
That particular case underscores the need to identify individual types of pain, he said, because they all need to be handled differently. If hospitalists don’t consider all the different aspects of pain, a patient might endure more suffering than necessary.
“All of this pain is swirling around in a very complicated patient,” Dr. Risser said, noting that it is important to “tease out the individual parts” of a complex patient’s history.
“Pain is a very complicated construct, from the physical to the neurological to the emotional,” Dr. Risser said. “Pain is a subjective experience, and the way people interact with their pain really depends not just on physical pain but also their psychological state, their social state, and even their spiritual state.”
Understanding this array of causes has led Dr. Risser to approach the problem of pain from different angles – including perspectives that might not be traditional, he said.
“One of the things that I’ve gotten better at is taking a spiritual history,” he said. “I don’t know if that’s part of everybody’s armamentarium. But if you’re dealing with people who are very, very sick, sometimes that’s the fundamental fabric of how they live and how they die. If there are unresolved issues along those lines, it’s possible they could be experiencing their pain in a different or more severe way.”
Varieties of pain
Treatment depends on the pain type, Dr. Risser said. Somatic pain often responds to nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories or steroids.
Neuropathic pain usually responds poorly to anti-inflammatories and to opioids. There is some research suggesting methadone could be helpful, but the data are not very strong. The most common medications prescribed are antiseizure medications and antidepressants, such as gabapentin and serotonin, and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors.
The question of cancer pain versus noncancer pain can be tricky, Dr. Risser said. If a person’s life expectancy is limited, there can be a reason, or even a requirement, to use higher-risk medications. But, he said, that doesn’t mean the patient still won’t have problems with overuse of pain medication.
“We have a lot of patients now living post cancer who have been put on methadone or have been put on Oxycontin, and now we’re trying to figure out what to do with them,” he said. “I don’t think it’s that clear anymore that there’s a massive difference between cancer and noncancer pain, especially for those survivors.”
Clinicians, he said, should “fix what can be fixed” – and with the right tools. “If you have a patient who’s got severe lower abdominal pain because they have a bladder full or urine, really the treatment would probably not be … opioids. It probably would be a Foley catheter,” he said.
Hospitalists should treat patients based on sound principles of pain management, Dr. Risser said, but “while you try to create a diagnostic framework, know that people continually defy the boxes we put them in.”
Indeed, in an era of pain-medication addiction, it might be a good idea to worry about prescribing opioids, but clinicians have to remember that their goal is to help patients get relief – and that they themselves bring biases to the table, said Amy Davis, DO, MS, of Drexel University, Philadelphia.
In a presentation at HM18, Dr. Davis displayed images of a variety of patients on a large screen – different races and genders, some in business attire, some rougher around the edges.
“Would pain decisions change based on what people look like?” she asked. “Can you really spot who the drug traffickers are? We need to remember that our biases play a huge role not only in the treatment of our patients but in their outcomes. I’m challenging everybody to start thinking about these folks not as drug-seekers but as comfort-seekers.”
When it comes right down to it, she said, patients want a better life, not their drug of choice.
“That is the nature of the disease. [The illegal drug] is not what they’re looking for in reality because that does not provide a good quality of life,” Dr. Davis said. “The [practice of medicine] is supposed to be about helping people live their lives, not just checking off boxes.”
People with an opioid use disorder are physically different, she said. The processing of pain stimuli by their brain and spinal cord is physically altered – they have an increased perception of pain and lower pain tolerance.
“This is not a character flaw,” Dr. Davis affirmed. The increased sensitivity to pain does not resolve with opioid cessation; it can last for decades. Clinicians may need to spend more time interacting with certain patients to get a sense of the physical and nonphysical pain from which they suffer.
“Consistent, open, nonjudgmental communication improves not only the information we gather from patients and families, but it actually changes the adherence,” Dr. Davis said. “Ultimately the treatment outcomes are what all of this is about.”