Why Untreated Chronic Pain is a Medical Emergency

Why Untreated Chronic Pain is a Medical Emergency

Alex DeLuca, M.D., FASAM, MPH;Written testimony submitted to the Senate Subcommittee on Crime and Drugs regarding the “Gen Rx: Abuse of Prescription and OTC Drugs” hearing; 2008–03–08.

Untreated Chronic Pain is Acute Pain

The physiological changes associated with acute pain, and their intimate neurological relationship with brain centers controlling emotion, and the evolutionary purpose of these normal bodily responses, are classically understood as the “Fight or Flight” reaction,

When these adaptive physiologic responses outlive their usefulness the fight or flight response becomes pathological, leading to chronic cardiovascular stress, hyperglycemia which both predisposes to and worsens diabetes, splanchnic vasoconstriction leading to impaired digestive function and potentially to catastrophic consequences such as mesenteric insufficiency. 

Unrelieved pain can be accurately thought of as the “universal complicator” which worsens all co-existing medical or psychiatric problems through the stress mechanisms reviewed above, and by inducing cognitive and behavioral changes in the sufferer that can interfere with obtaining needed medical care

Dr. Daniel Carr, director of the New England Medical Center, put it this way:

Chronic pain is like water damage to a house – if it goes on long enough, the house collapses,” [sighs Dr. Carr] “By the time most patients make their way to a pain clinic, it’s very late. What the majority of doctors see in a chronic-pain patient is an overwhelming, off-putting ruin: a ruined body and a ruined life.”

Dr. Carr is exactly right, and the relentless presence of pain has more than immediate effects. The duration of pain, especially when never interrupted by truly pain-free times, creates a cumulative impact on our lives.

Consequences of Untreated and Inadequately-treated Pain

we must also consider often profound decrements in family and occupational functioning, and iatrogenic morbidity consequent to the very common mis-identification of pain patient as drug seeker.

The overall deleterious effect of chronic pain on an individual’s existence and outlook is so overwhelming that it cannot be overstated. The risk of death by suicide is more than doubled in chronic pain patients, relative to national rates.

What happens to patients denied needed pharmacological pain relief is well documented. For example, morbidity and mortality resulting from the high incidence of moderate to severe postoperative pain continues to be a major problem despite an array of available advanced analgesic technology

Patients who received less than 10 mg of parenteral morphine sulfate equivalents per day were more likely to develop delirium than patients who received more analgesia (RR 5.4, 95% CI 2.4–12.3)… Avoiding opioids or using very low doses of opioids increased the risk of delirium. Cognitively intact patients with undertreated pain were nine times more likely to develop delirium than patients whose pain was adequately treated. Undertreated pain and inadequate analgesia appear to be risk factors for delirium in frail older adults. [7]

Pain Sufferers are Medically Discriminated Against

Chronic pain patients are routinely treated as a special class of patient, often with severely restricted liberties – prevented from consulting multiple physicians and using multiple pharmacies as they might please, for example, and in many cases have little say in what treatment modalities or which medications will be used. These are basic liberties unquestioned in a free society for every other class of sufferer

chronic pain patients are often seen by medical professionals primarily as prescription or medication problems, rather than as whole individuals who very often present an array of complex comorbid medical, psychological, and social problems

Instead these complex general medical patients are ‘cared for’ as if their primary and only medical problem was taking prescribed analgesic medication.

This attitude explains why most so-called Pain Treatment Centers have reshaped themselves into Addiction Treatment Centers.  Even with a documented cause for pain, the primary goal of these programs, whether stated or not, is to coerce patients to stop taking their pain medications.

This may work for a small number of pain patients who may not really need opioids in the first place, but is a “cruel and unusual” punishment for those of us with serious, documented, pain-causing illnesses.

The published success rate of these programs has nothing to do with pain – it is measured by how many people leave the program taking no pain medication, but there is no data about the aftermath, how many manage to stay off their medication long-term.

their obvious primary medical need is for medical stabilization, not knee-jerk detoxification

Chronic Pain is a Legitimate Medical Disease

Chronic pain is probably the most disabling, and most preventable, sequelae to untreated, and inadequately treated, severe pain.

Following a painful trauma or disease, chronicity of pain may develop in the absence of effective relief. A continuous flow of pain signals into the pain mediating pathways of the dorsal horn of the spinal cord alters those pathways through physiological processes known as central sensitization, and neuroplasticity. The end result is the disease of chronic pain in which a damaged nervous system becomes the pain source generator separated from whatever the initial pain source was.

Aggressive treatment of severe pain, capable of protecting these critical spinal pain tracts, is the standard care recommended in order to achieve satisfactory relief and prevention of intractable chronic pain

Medications represent the mainstay therapeutic approach to patients with acute or chronic pain syndromes… aimed at controlling the mechanisms of nociception, [the] complex biochemical activity [occurring] along and within the pain pathways of the peripheral and central nervous system (CNS)… Aggressive treatment of severe pain is recommended in order to achieve satisfactory relief and prevention of intractable chronic pain.

we are seeing ominous scientific evidence in modern imaging studies of a maladaptive and abnormal persistence of brain activity associated with loss of brain mass in the chronic pain population

Atrophy is most advanced in the areas of the brain that process pain and emotions. In a 2006 news article, a researcher into the pathophysiological effects of chronic pain on brain anatomy and cognitive/emotional functioning, explained:

This constant firing of neurons in these regions of the brain could cause permanent damage, Chialvo said. “We know when neurons fire too much they may change their connections with other neurons or even die because they can’t sustain high activity for so long,” he explained

It is well known that chronic pain can result in anxiety, depression and reduced quality of life

Recent evidence indicates that chronic pain is associated with a specific cognitive deficit, which may impact everyday behavior especially in risky, emotionally laden, situations.

The areas involved include the prefrontal cortex and the thalamus, the part of the brain especially involved with cognition and emotions

The magnitude of this decrease is equivalent to the gray matter volume lost in 10–20 years of normal aging. The decreased volume was related to pain duration, indicating a 1.3 cm3 loss of gray matter for every year of chronic pain

clinicians have used opioid preparations to good analgesic effect since recorded history.

No newer medications will ever be as thoroughly proven safe as opioids, which have been used and studied for generations.  We know exactly what side effects there are, and they are fewer than most new drugs, with less than a 5% chance of becoming addicted if taken for pain.

In fields of medicine involving controlled substances, especially addiction medicine and pain medicine, the doctor-patient relationship has become grossly distorted.

doctors-in-good-standing who, faced with a patient in pain and therefore at risk of triggering an investigation, modify their treatment in an attempt to avoid regulatory attention

Examples include a blanket refusal to prescribe controlled substances even when clearly indicated, or selecting less effective and more toxic non-controlled medications when a trial of opioid analgesics would be in the best interests of a particular patient. At the very least, some degree of suspicion and mistrust will surely arise in any medical relationship involving controlled substances.

the quality of care most physicians provide is fairly close to the medical standard of care which is what the textbooks say one should do, and which is generally in line with core medical ethical obligations

For example, modern pain management textbooks universally recommend ‘titration to effect’ (simplistically: gradually increasing the opioid dose until the pain is relieved or until untreatable side effects prevent further dosage increase) as the procedure by which one properly treats chronic pain with opioid medications. Yet the overwhelmingly physicians in America do not practice titration to effect, or anything even vaguely resembling it, for fear of becoming ‘high dose prescriber’ targets of federal or state law enforcement.

It is a foundation of medicine back to ancient times that a primary obligation of a physician is to relieve suffering. A physician also has a fiduciary duty to act in the best interests of the individual patient at all times, and that the interests of the patient are to be held above all others, including those of family or the state.[23] These ethical obligations incumbent on all individual physicians extend to state licensing and regulatory boards which are composed of physicians monitoring and regulating themselves. [24]

A number of barriers to effective pain relief have been identified and include:

  1. The failure of clinicians to identify pain relief as a priority in patient care;
  2. Fear of regulatory scrutiny of prescribing practices for opioid analgesics;
  3. The persistence of irrational beliefs and unsubstantiated fears about addiction, tolerance, dependence, and adverse side effects of opioid analgesics.

A rift has developed between the usual custom and practice standard of care (the medical community norm – what most reputable physicians do) and the reasonable physician standard of care (what the textbooks say to do – the medical standard of care), and this raises very serious and difficult dilemma for both individual physicians and medical board

Research into pathophysiology and natural history of chronic pain have dramatically altered our understanding of what chronic pain is, what causes it, and the changes in spinal cord and brain structure and function that mediate the disease process of chronic pain, which is generally progressive and neurodegenerative

This understanding explains many clinical observations in chronic pain patients, such as phantom limb syndrome, that the pain spreads to new areas of the body not involved in the initiating injury, and that it generally worsens if not aggressively treated. The progressive, neurodegenerational nature of chronic pain was recently shown in several imaging studies showing significant losses of neocortical grey matter in the prefrontal lobes and thalamus

Regarding the standard of care for pain management:

1) Delaying aggressive opioid therapy in favor of trying everything else first is not rational based on a modern, scientific understanding of the pathophysiology of chronic pain, and is therefore not the standard of care. Delaying opioid therapy could result in the disease of chronic pain.

2) Opioid titration to analgesic effect represents near ideal treatment for persistent pain, providing both quick relief of acute suffering and possible prevention of neurological damage known to underlie chronic pain.

Pain Relief Network(PRN); 2008–02–28; Revised: 2008–07–08. Typo’s and minor reformatting: 2014-04-14.

14 thoughts on “Why Untreated Chronic Pain is a Medical Emergency

  1. painkills2

    Many of the addiction treatment centers require patients to stop taking their medications before they are allowed to be “treated,” which I consider cruel and unusual punishment. And keep in mind that there are many pain patients who haven’t been able to afford documenting their pain with expensive tests and doctor appointments, especially if they don’t have insurance or if they lose their coverage.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Connie Galarneau

    I’ve been dealing with chronic pain for almost 20 years and even though I’ve had the tests required by doctors and specialists, I still have a hard time finding adequate pain relief. I urge everyone to do what they can to get the new policy ‘”National Pain Strategy” put forth by the American Academy of Pain Management passed in Congress so that pain relief will be something doctors and patients can strive for and not just dream about.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Pingback: Why Untreated Chronic Pain is a Medical Emergency | EDS Info (Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome) |

  4. JGK

    Thank you so much for this article.
    I have suffered from severe chronic intractable pain for 33+ years, and I cried when I read this. I am emotionally stable, but physically a complete wreck.
    The most recent cries of “stop addiction!” only add to my distress.
    Opioids have been successfully used since humans first discovered them, many thousands of years ago; why are they now considered dangerous in a medically appropriate situation? I believe it’s because of the pressure of the pharmaceutical industry.
    Any time I try to see a new doctor, I’m immediately seen as a drug seeker. I’m not. I’m a relief seeker.
    We MUST do something concrete about this problem. We must have a compassionate and medically sound solution.
    My quality of life is practically zero; and only the knowledge that my life is a gift and must never be wasted keeps me from ending it.
    Thank you for reading my comment. Stay strong, fellow sufferers.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Zyp Czyk Post author

      I’m so pleased you found the article meaningful.

      Your comment about opioids sounds almost as though I’d written it myself. This crazed response to the much publicized, but actually less common than hospital errors, opioid “crisis” as another reason to stop the “war on drugs”. Despite the best efforts of “drug warriors”, the one thing that hasn’t been hurt by all the violence this war has spawned is the ever increasing volume of illicit drugs.

      We pan patients are apparently considered an acceptable level of collateral damage in the “war on drugs”.


  5. KR

    I am just beside myself over this entire situation. I could have NEVER imagined my country betraying me and every other chronically ill person that suffers with chronic intractable pain!

    To try and abate the problems of one population by causing irreparable harm to another is morally bankrupt. The World Health Organization states that every human being on the planet has an unalienable right to proper and ADEQUATE pain relief. The CDC guidelines that were intended for general practitioners & other non pain management specialist have been perverted, used as a convenient scapegoat, and have been taken far beyond their intended scope to allow for legislation that does NOTHING to abate addiction or subtance abuse disorders.

    For everything there is an opposite and equal reaction! Every 5th grader knows this fact.

    So, the so-called unintended consequences of the CDC seem unrealistic to me. It furthers the assumption (and hard to find facts hidden among the ubiquitous propaganda), about zealous opiophobic foundations like ShatterProof and PROP (who own & have financial interest in rehabs), that they FULLY expected to drive patients to the streets in seek of pain relief in hopes and moreover in realization that these suffering people will relent and submit to their … “every chronic pain patient is nothing more than an addict” …
    in order to fill the beds at their drug rehabs.

    Yes. The founder of ShatterProof that had a hand in the CDC guidelines also owns a chain of drug rehab clinics! Coincidence? I think not!

    Well, I could go on and on but I’ll leave with this one last thought… the 100MME is NOT solving a thing! The ONLY ones benefitting are the heroin drug traffickers and the investors/owners of drug rehabs!

    Stop the insanity! Give us back our rights to live the best quality life possible.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Zyp Czyk Post author

      Very, very well said!

      Regarding “I could have NEVER imagined my country betraying me and every other chronically ill person that suffers with chronic intractable pain!”

      I agree – I feel betrayed, like I’m being persecuted for a crime I haven’t committed. This betrayal hangs over me like a heavy dark cloud.


      1. L.D. The Insufferable Movement

        Thank you so much for this unbelievably well executed and informative article that debunks so much of the misinformation that chronic pain in itself is not a disease process, that as intractable pain patients we know all too well is very much a reality.
        It’s a waking nightmare to live knowing our government Allows our civil liberties and rights of bodily Integrity , Liberty of free movement, and Life to continually be dissolved and destroyed completely unchallenged ; Knowingly participates in our torture (8th Amendment), allows our and our Dr.s private medical records/ prescription history as fodder and fair game to many DEA agent who wants to thumb through and seize it (4th Amendment). As both an EDS 3 patient and person of Ashkenazi Jewish decent to hear repeatedly by this new gen of unethical doctors and NPs continually try ‘hide behind’ broken record phrases such as : “we follow the rules and policies of our government in prescribing m m e ….” , ” due to the opioid epidemic we are not ‘allowed’ to ….” ,” we must insure all ( patients) do not become addicted….” My hospital/clinic/practice/ER/ Government does not ‘allow me’ to help you with treatment or medicine….” , has been a deeply traumatic reminder of the weakness of many peoples moral constitution in the face of discrimination that borders genocide of a select population (10%-12% of the U.S.,100 million citizens with chronic pain disease). Hilter modeled his earliest plans for ‘the final solution’ off of Lenin whom knew he first Must get a All doctors to break their Hippocratic Oath lest be punished by the government and follow the ‘new’ policies or be penalized jailed/ lose their licenses; Hilter did the same as well knowing if he could corrupt the most moral of men, everyone else would fall as well, and he was right… What is occurring are human rights violations. The revised Hippocratic Oath and ANA ‘ ethical responsibility to manage pain and suffer in nursing’ have Both included they have ethical and fiduciary duty to administer relief even against the ‘wishs’, policies or ‘laws’ of a government or other Hospital officials; for Doctors in their Oath they swear to ‘not harm’ nor violate the rights of another human on pain of even self and their own family…. Make no mistake, we are living in times where wheat and chaff are being divided , and no matter how sick we become we must fight to take back and preserve what was meant to be guaranteed afforded Rights in the United States, before they’re lost completely to any and all citizens.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Zyp Czyk Post author

          I agree with you and, as a person of European descent, I also see the implications of what’s being done to us. We say, “that could never happen here!”, but what’s happening here these days is exactly how “it” started.

          Let’s hope that most Americans aren’t quite as blindly obedient and show a little more ethical backbone than people did back then.


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