Chronic Pain in Opioid Treatment Program Patients Typically Untreated

Many patients in opioid treatment programs (OTPs) are likely to have chronic pain, but in many, that pain will not be adequately treated, in part because there are so many problems balancing the methadone they are given for opioid dependence with the types of medications needed to treat pain.

“Most physicians in an OTP have experience treating addiction and pain, I can guarantee that,” said Nicholas Reuter, MPH, senior public health analyst with the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (CSAT) at the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). “I go in and inspect the programs, and I can see patients who obviously have some chronic pain issues. They’re not hard to identify—they have canes, walkers, and scars.”

But OTPs cannot be pain management clinics because of regulations, said Randy Seewald, MD, medical director of the methadone maintenance treatment program at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City.  “If a patient comes to us and says, ‘I just want methadone once a day for pain,’ we can’t admit them,” said Dr. Seewald, who has a fellowship in pain management. Sometimes patients may say this because they don’t want to admit that they are addicted.

Methadone needs to be given multiple times each day for pain relief. And the federal regulations allow OTPs to dose only once a day, which is adequate to prevent withdrawal.

At Beth Israel, the first OTP in the country, many patients are older, noted Dr. Seewald. “In general as people age, they are more likely to develop chronic pain,” she said, adding that many Beth Israel patients have had significant illnesses, including HIV and hepatitis C. She defines chronic pain as pain lasting 6 months or more.

Study: Epidemiology of Pain in MMT Programs

“We know this is a vulnerable population of chronic pain patients,” said Lara K. Dhingra, PhD, Co-chief of the Research Division in the Department of Pain Medicine and Palliative Care at Beth Israel. “Patients who are on methadone for treatment of their addictive disorder may still require treatment for their chronic pain, and at present there aren’t any guidelines for protocols we should be following with respect to the medication regimen,” said Dr. Dhingra, who works with Dr. Seewald. “The majority of patients are likely to not have their pain treated.”

Dr. Dhingra is the lead author of “Epidemiology of pain among outpatients in methadone maintenance treatment programs,” part of a larger study funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (R01DA020781, R01DA020841), published in the August 27 issue of Drug and Alcohol Dependence. Her study (Dr. Seewald and Russell K. Portenoy, MD, chairman of the Department of Pain Medicine and Palliative Care, are among the co-authors) was based on sites in New York and San Francisco in which all patients had hepatitis C. Of the 489 patients in the study, 237 (48.5 percent) had clinically significant pain.

The patients treated their pain with prescribed opioids (38.8 percent of patients), non-opioids (48.9 percent) and self-management approaches, including prayer (33.8 percent), vitamins (29.5 percent), and distraction (12.7 percent). (Some patients used more than one approach.)

The same steps that are followed for people who are not opioid dependent should be followed for OTP patients with chronic pain, said Dr. Seewald. This means diagnosing and trying to treat the cause if possible, starting with non-drug therapies and nonopioid drugs, and considering opioids only if an assessment indicates that these drugs are likely to be safe and effective, and taken in a responsible way over time. In this population, opioids often are viewed as the last resort, but for many OTP patients who have hepatitis C, acetaminophen, with its liver effects, would not be appropriate, and NSAIDs have a high risk of gastrointestinal bleeding, she said.

The primary care provider (PCP) is generally in charge of pain management, said Dr. Seewald. But she noted that the OTP sees the patients much more frequently than either the pain specialist or the PCP, and the OTP is required by the Joint Commission to assess pain at every visit.

Methadone for Pain

Interestingly, methadone can be a great medication for pain in general, because it does not produce the euphoria or rush of other opioids in patients who may be predisposed to this effect, said Dr. Seewald. “Methadone is challenging to use for pain, however, and doctors who do not have experience in using it this way should obtain help before doing so.” 

Although Dr. Seewald did a fellowship in pain management—precisely because so many OTP patients have pain—she does not treat patients for pain alone, even in her private practice. “I’m also a pain specialist, but if I have someone with pain and addiction, I will work with another pain specialist,” she said. “You don’t want to be the only one involved.”

 Need for Training on Opioids and Pain

“The federal regulations don’t say anything about pain treatment,” said Mr. Reuter. “They’re really tailored toward treating dependence.” But OTPs are ideal, in many ways, for dealing with patients who need opioids. With all of the training given to OTP physicians about the pharmacology of methadone treatment, said Mr. Reuter, these physicians would be likely to have more knowledge about opioids and their risks than average physicians. “Methadone is one of the most complicated opioids there are,” he said.

Primary care physicians need to know more about medication-assisted treatment of addiction, but it works both ways—OTPs need to know more about pain, said Dr. Seewald. “I worked in drug treatment with methadone patients for 20 years before I took my pain fellowship. We were never trained to treat pain.”