Top ten causes of death: US 2020

Top ten causes of death US 2020, according to JAMA, here.

Total deaths: 3,358.814
Contrast total deaths in 2019, at 2,854,838. That number had been on a very slow rise since 2015 (2,712,630) to 2019 (2,854,838). That increase over four years is 142,208 people. Then the death rate suddenly jumps 503,976 people in one year. Ouch. I cannot say that I understand vaccine refusal.

1. Coronary artery disease: 690,882
Heart disease still wins. And it went up 4.8%. It is suspected that people were afraid to go to doctors and hospitals. I saw one man early on in the pandemic for “constipation”. He had acute appendicitis. I sent him to the ER and his appendix was removed that day. He thanked me for seeing him in person. Might have missed that one over zoom.

2. Cancer deaths: 598,932
This is cancer deaths, not all of the cancers.

3. Covid-19: 345,342
I have had various people complain that covid-19 is listed as the cause of death when the person has a lot of other problems: heart disease, cancer, heart failure. The death certificate allows for more than one cause but we are supposed to list the final straw first. I cannot list old age, for example. I have to list: renal failure (kidneys stopped working) due to anorexia (stopped eating) due to dementia. That patient was 104 and had had dementia for years. But dementia is not listed as the final cause. So if the person is 92, in a nursing home for dementia and congestive heart failure, gets covid-19 and dies, covid-19 is listed first, and then the others.

4. Unintentional injuries: 192,176
Accidents went up, not down, which is interesting since lots of people were not in their cars. However, remember that the top of the list for unintentional injuries is overdose death, more by legal than illicit drugs. If there is no note, it’s considered unintentional. Well, unless there is a really high blood level of opioids and benzos and alcohol. Then it becomes intentional. They do not always check, especially if the person is elderly. The number rose 11.1%, which seems like a lot of people.

5. Stroke: 159,050
This rose too.

6. Chronic lower respiratory diseases: 151,637
This went down a little. This is mostly COPD and emphysema. So why would it go down? Well, I think bad lung disease people were dying of covid-19, right?

7. Alzheimer’s: 133,182
This seems to belie me putting renal failure due to anorexia due to Alzheimer’s. I think they actually read the forms and would put that as Alzheimer’s rather than renal failure, because it is not chronic renal disease.

8. Diabetes: 101,106
This rose too. 15.4%, again, probably partly because people avoided going to clinic visits. Also perhaps some stress eating. Carbohydrate comfort.

9. Influenza and pneumonia: 53,495
So this went up too in spite of a lot less influenza. Other pneumonias, presumably.

10. Kidney disease: 52,260
This went up.

And what fell out of the top ten, to be replaced by covid-19?

11. Suicide: 44,834
This actually went down a little. What will it do in 2021?

So what will 2021 look like? I don’t know. It depends what the variants of covid-19 do, depends on what sort of influenza year we have, depends on whether we are open or closed, depends if we bloody well help the rest of the world get vaccinated so that there is not a huge continuing wave of variants.

Today the Johns Hopkins covid-19 map says that deaths in the US stand at 608,818 from covid-19. If we subtract the 2020 covid-19 deaths, we stand at 263,495 deaths from covid-19 so far this year. Will we have more deaths in the US from covid-19 than in 2020? It is looking like yes, unless more people get immunized fast.

Take care.

Liars and the lying lies they tell

This blog post: hanging from a telephone wire intrigues me.

Why do the liars lie?

I disagree with Ms. Kennedy.

The liars lie for the same reason that addicts lie. They are not lying to you or to me. They are lying to themselves FIRST. They want to believe what they say.

“My marriage is perfect.”

“I love all my children the same.”

“I never make an error.”

“I talk to my mother every Sunday morning because we are so close and love each other so much.”

“I can see right in to your head.”

“I don’t care about anything.”

“I am happy all the time.”

Whew. A totally easy list to come up with and I could go on and on and on…. and so could you. When someone says something like this… I am always (fill in blank) or I never (fill in blank)… stop. Think. They want to believe it. They might like you to believe it too. They might even kind of know that it’s a lie and very convincing one but the best liars have convinced themselves.

I saw it in clinic all the time. Over and over and over.

It’s the glitter that gives it away. When they come in all glittery and sparkly and their eyes shine and they are too beautiful for words and they charm your socks right off…. check your wallet. They are an addict or a manipulator or they WANT SOMETHING FROM YOU. And there are people who just do it automatically. They lie all the time.

Whatever. When someone reminds me of my mother or my sister… or the other extremely well trained enablers on the maternal side of my stupid family…. ooooooo. The person has my full focused attention. Which thing is the lie? What do they want? What are they going to try to get out of me?

When I trained in buprenorphine treatment, the guy (enabler) that I was dating was horrified. “You can’t treat addicts!” he said.

“Why not?” I asked.

“They LIE.”

I laughed. “ALL patients lie. There are studies. They lie about whether they are taking their blood pressure medicine. They lie about how much salt they are eating. They lie about exercising. The first question I ask if someone’s blood pressure is too high, is “Are you taking the medicine?” More than half the time I get a sheepish, “Yeah, well, no, I ran out of it two weeks ago.” “Yeah, well, then I can’t tell if it’s working or not, can I? And you’ll have to redo the stupid labs once you have taken it for two weeks and come back for another check.” “Ok, ok, I get it.” If you lie to your doctor, well, you might get hurt. Tell them about the pills your friend gave you, tell them about the supplements, and that infected toe? Might help if you tell the truth about it. Even though it was when you um inserted well we were just, like he has an infected um. That is important information and changes which antibiotics I use plus now I want to check for chlamydia and gonorrhea and same sex male so we gotter talk about HIV prophylaxis and this is a 15 minute clinic visit? I am now running late and annoyed. You need another visit in 1-2 days or else I gonna hospitalize yo dumb self.

And WHY do people, and especially people in addiction, lie to themselves?

Damage. ACE scores. Adverse Childhood Experience Scores. They wish that they were that close to their mother. They long for a perfect marriage. They were beaten in secret by the perfect father. The famous man, their grandfather, sexually abused them. The list is endless.

And how do we help? The person I just stopped dating told me that his children said to him “My picker’s broke.” Our pickers are not really broken. We are attracted to the people who can teach us.

In the book Passionate Marriage, the author writes about how we are attracted to the people who have what we lack. What we want to learn. What we are afraid of. What we need to learn. I needed to learn how to really look at anyone I date with my full on intuition right away and also that it is seriously Not Nice of me to get curious, activate my inner scientist and stick around. I recognize the projection on me at some point and then the scientist in me is intrigued. Really? The most recent one said that inside me there is a sweet innocent joyous tiny girl.

Well, I thought. No, not really. There certainly is a baby. But it’s a baby honey badger or a baby Iron Bitch Alien Lizard. Don’t care what you call it. But it is about as sweet as a pissed off porcupine or skunk. Polecat. Octopoggles done got us! Squirting ink and sliding into an impossibly small space and escaping from the acquarium over and over until the captors let me go…..

And that was actually the moment I should have spoken up. Calmly. Kindly. “Um, no. I was never a sweet innocent joyous tiny girl. I was bathed in antibodies to tuberculosis in the womb and no doubt alcohol and my parents were newly married and I came out saying, “What is happening now? Some new torture? Augh! Bright lights! Is there food? I am really really hungry. Feed me or I will eat YOU.” And then I lost my mother for nine months so that I would not catch tuberculosis from her and die. I didn’t really understand it. I thought people kept giving me away and that you couldn’t trust those evil adults.

In the end this is all actually necessary, says the Passionate Marriage author. WHAT? WHAT? Well, in a truly loving relationship, both people will withdraw the projection. The projection is the “falling in love” where the person is golden, perfect, your true love. No, they aren’t. But you love that aspect of them that you want/need/can’t do. True love is when you withdraw the projection and you see the real person and you love them.

It isn’t easy. But people do it. Birds do it, squirrels do it, trees do it, even elementary bees do it… let’s do it… let’s fall in love.

Free fall

I feel safest with the fallen

Everyone falls
No one is good

I am afraid
Of the people who
pretend to be good

the fallen
don’t pretend

We fell down down down
like an eternity
like it would never end

We were bad
depressed drunk addicted
liars cowards thieves

We held our arms out
There was nothing to stop us
Free fall

All we could do
was pray

We prayed
As best we could
With all our hearts
If we had no words

Falling angels
Caught us

Helped us
Claw our way back

Some people fall
Are still falling
Fall forever

Are they crazy
Or do they choose
To stay with the angels?

The people who say
They are good

We look at them

We know they haven’t fallen

They are lying to us
They are lying to themselves
They are lying to the Beloved
They want to be good
They want what they say to be true

But it isn’t

I meet the eyes of another fallen
Knowledge

I can see the memory
Of infinite free fall
In their eyes.

Qia and the liars

Qia is in her first year of college, 1200 miles from home. She joins the ski team, hoping to ski. There really aren’t mountains in Wisconsin. They are hills. She doesn’t have a car so she has to get rides to the ski hill. She does get demo skis, because she is on the team. It’s mostly guys, a few women. The guys chug a beer at the top of each run. The runs are ice after the first time down. It is very poorly lit and very cold. Qia is afraid of the ice and the guys and the drinking.

At Christmas she goes home, to Virginia. She really wants ski pants, she tells her mother. She is cold. She is still skiing in spite of the drinking and the scary guys and the ice. They yell at her to go faster but she goes the speed where she will not die. It doesn’t matter anyhow. She goes to a formal race and they have three foot tall trophies for the boys and nothing, not even a ribbon, for the women.

At home, her father is laughing. He is giggling, silly. He doesn’t make any sense. He gives Qia the creeps. Her mother sails along like nothing is wrong. Qia’s little sister has gone from the extroverted life of the party to locked down so hard that her eyes are stones. Fungk, thinks Qia.

Her father loses his down jacket, leaving it somewhere. Then he borrows her mothers and loses it too. Qia’s sister has out grown hers. On Christmas morning there are two down jackets and a pair of ski pants.

The ski pants are two sizes too small. Her father laughs. The down jackets are the ugliest colors, cheaply made, junk. Qia watches her mother and sister try to smile.

Qia leaves the ski pants and returns to Wisconsin. She gets a spider bite. It spreads. She goes to the doctor. He gives a laugh of relief and says it is shingles. He has to explain what shingles is. “It either means you are very run down or have severe stress.” Qia laughs. Worst Christmas of her life so far.

She realizes the problem. Her father has been abducted by fairies and a changeling put in his place. She reads everything she can find about changelings. Adult changelings are rare but not unknown. She pulls out every stop on top of her heavy schedule to learn about how to fight fairies. She can’t afford to hire a fighter. She finds an iron sword at a second hand shop. She hangs around the gyms and watches the fairy fighters fight. She goes home and practices every move. She collects herbs.

She sets things up before spring break. She arrives home and asks her mother and sister to go with her to a specialist in changelings and fighting fairies. Qia is sad but confident. Her mother and sister both cry after watching the movie about the behavior of changelings. Qia asks her mother and sister to help her.

They both refuse.

Qia can’t understand it. But she has studied and read the books. She will do it alone.

She meets with her father. She tells him how awful and frightening Christmas was. She tells him how ashamed and scared she was. She reads him a letter that her sister wrote to her, emotionless, about having to watch him when he is curled in a fetal ball at the top of the stairs. Her mother asked her sister to watch him, so he wouldn’t hurt himself. Her sister says that she wanted to go out with her friends. Her sister is in tenth grade.

Her father doesn’t say a word.

Qia begs him to tell her the key. The word that will open the portal. She shows him the sword and lists all of her herbs and describes her training. She tells him that after she defeats the fairies he will go home and her real father will be returned. She says that she knows he isn’t happy here, with mortals.

He doesn’t say a word to her for the rest of spring break. Her mother and sister do not say a word about it either. Her father drinks more heavily. Qia returns to college.

Qia refuses to come home for the summer. She stays in Wisconsin. She does not want to be around any of them.

Her sister is three years younger. Qia wishes that she could scoop her up and take her to Wisconsin. Qia frets and is in pain. Qia’s second year starts and her sister is in eleventh grade.

Qia’s mother calls. Qia’s sister is on her way. 3000 miles away. “At the last minute, C invited her to live with them in Seattle.” says Qia’s mother. “C was leaving the next day. Your sister decided and went with her. It’s a relief because your sister was getting A’s on tests but refusing to turn in homework, so overall she was getting D’s. ” Qia is relieved. C and S have a son named after her father. He is younger than her sister. Qia also has a cousin 6 years older who lived with C and S and still lives in Seattle. Qia wishes her little sister the best.

Years later, after her mother has died, Qia asks her father about it. By now her father is back and the changeling is gone. I was angry, says her father. But your sister was getting into lots of trouble. Really bad trouble. What could I do, locked in fairyland. He does not go into what Qia’s sister was doing.

And after her father dies, Qia finds a letter. The letter is from C to her mother. It is talking about her sister going to live with C and S. My mother lied to me, thinks Qia. I am not surprised. I wonder why she lied to me. Qia thinks it is probably because her mother set it up with C and did not tell her sister. Qia thinks that her mother lied to her sister. Qia thinks how much that would have hurt her sister: that her mother chose the changeling over her. Her sister would have been terribly hurt and angry.

But so many are dead, what does it matter? Qia’s mother is dead. Her father is dead. Her sister is dead. C’s son is longest dead. S is dead. Even the changeling is dead. Friends in fairyland let Qia know. Actually, Qia and C are the only ones left living.

C did not lie to Qia or her sister directly. She let Qia’s mother do the lying.

Qia does not talk to C again.

Qia is tired of liars.

______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

This is not a story about fairies. It is about alcohol or any addiction. We must support families, because the whole family becomes ill. Triangulation, lies, competition, enabling. In my maternal family, the enablers die before the enablees. I have chosen to leave the system and I refuse to be either an enabler or enablee. If you are in that sort of system, you may find that the family resists you leaving and tries to draw you back in to it. When you do finally succeed in leaving, there will be a strong reaction. When the pirahnas run out of food, they eat each other. Stand back and don’t get drawn back in. The newest victim will need to make their own decision to stay or leave.

Deep Vein Thrombosis

Our clinic had a band back before 2009. Me and 4 of the nurses. We were into heavy metal. This was when I was working for Port Townsend Family Physicians. The county let me go and PTFP changed their name. Could not have been because we wore our band regalia to work, right? After all, it was Halloween.

Maybe they were afraid that the songs would catch on.

Little blue pill

Don’t code in the waiting room

Evidence based BM

Probiotics make you psychotic

Better that way

Alcohol is better than benzos

Mr. Sable is Unable

Buprenorphine: better n morphine

EMR means Eat My Rear

The 18 Patient Blues

Idaho Gigolo

I played flute and saw. J played fiddle and air siren. The others, well, you should ask them. I think all the tapes got burned by the hospital. Too bad, so sad.

I can’t credit the photographer. I don’t know who took it.

Causes of death: which does your doctor treat?

What is the number one cause of death in the United States? The heart. You know that.

You might know the number two: all the cancer deaths put together.

Number three is lower respiratory disease: mostly caused by tobacco.

Number four. Can you guess? Number four is accidents. Unintentional deaths. In 2012 number four was stroke, but unintentional deaths have moved up the list, here: https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/deaths.htm. The CDC tracks unintentional deaths, here: https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/accidental-injury.htm. And what is the number one cause of unintentional death right now? It is not gun accidents. It is not car wrecks. It is not falls. It is unintentional overdose: usually opioids, legal or illegal, often combined with other sedating medicines or alcohol. Alcohol, sleep medicines, benzodiazepines, some muscle relaxants. No suicide note. Not on purpose. Or we don’t know if it is on purpose….

And does your physician try to prevent accidental death? Do they talk to you about seatbelts, about wearing bicycle helmets, about smoke alarms, about falls in the elderly, about domestic violence, about locking up guns? About not driving when under the influence? Do they talk about addiction and do they treat addiction?I think that every primary care physician should treat the top ten causes of death. I am a family medicine physician and I try to work with any age, any person. I treat addiction as well as chronic pain. I have always tried to talk about the risk of opiates when I prescribe them. I treat addictions including alcoholism, methamphetamines, cocaine, tobacco and opioids. Legal, illegal and iv opioids, from oxcodone and hydrocodone to heroin. That doesn’t mean I can safely treat every patient outpatient. People with multi drug addiction, or complex mental health with addiction, or severe withdrawal must be treated inpatient. But I have taken the buprenorphine training to get my second DEA number to learn how to safely treat opiate overuse. I took the course in 2011. I was the only physician in my county of 27,000 people who was a prescriber for two years. Now we have more, but still the vast majority of physicians in the United States have not taken the training even when it is offered free.

I don’t understand why more physicians, primary care doctors, are NOT taking the buprenorphine and recognition and treatment of opiate overuse course. Most are not trained. Why not take the training? Even if they are not prescribers, they will be much better informed for the options for patients. People are dying from opioids daily. Physicians have a DEA number to prescribe controlled substances: I think that every physician who prescribes opioids also has a duty and obligation to train to recognized and intervene and be informed about treating opioid overuse.

A large clinic group in Portland, Oregon made the decision last year that every primary care provider was required to train in buprenorphine. One provider disagreed and chose to leave. However, everyone else is now trained.

We as a country and as physicians need to get past fear, past stigma, past discrimination and past our fixed ideas and step up to take care of patients. If a physician treats alcoholism as part of primary care, they should also be knowledgeable and trained in treatment of opiate overuse.

Ask YOUR physician and YOUR local clinics: Do the providers prescribe opiates? Are their providers trained in preventing, recognizing and treating opiate addiction? Do they treat opiate overuse? Do they understand how buprenorphine can save lives and return people to work and to their families? Are they part of the solution?

For the Daily Prompt: provoke.

Update on PTSD 2017: hope!

I have just spent a week in San Antonio, Texas at the AAFP FMX: American Academy of Family Physicians Family Medicine Experience.

Whew. Long acronym.

However, I attended two programs on PTSD. One was a three hour offsite one put on by the U. of Texas Health Sciences Department of Family Medicine. The other was a one hour program about active duty military and PTSD.

The biggest message for me is HOPE. Hope for treatment, hope for diagnosis, hope for destigmatization, hope for remission. I am not sure if we should call it a “cure”. Once a diabetic, always a diabetic, even if you lose 100 pounds.

In medical school 1989-1993 I learned that PTSD existed but that was about it. There was no discussion of medicines, treatment, diagnosis or cure.

Ditto residency. I learned much more about psychiatry reading about addiction and alcoholism and Claudia Black’s books then I did in residency.

Fast forward to 2010, when I opened my own clinic. I worked as a temp doc at Madigan Army Hospital for three months.

The military was aggressively pursuing treatment and diagnosis of depression, anxiety, PTSD and traumatic brain injury. I worked in the walk in clinic from 6:30 to 8:00 four days a week. Every walk in had to fill out a screen for depression. They were trying to stem the suicides, the damage, the return to civilian life problems and addiction too. They were embedding a behavioral health specialist in every section of the military. I was amazed at how hard the military was working on behavioral health.

In 2010 I took the buprenorphine course, which is really a crash course in addiction medicine, at the University of Washington Med School. I took it because it was free (I had just opened a clinic) and I thought we were as a nation prescribing WAY too many damned opioids. Yes! I found my tribe!

This gave me a second DEA number, to prescribe buprenorphine for opiate overuse, but also hooked me up with the University of Washington Telemedicine. I presented about 30 opiate overuse problem patients (anonymously, there is a form) to the team via telemedicine over the next year. The team includes a pain specialist, addiction specialist, psychiatrist and physiatrist. They do a 30 minute teaching session and then discuss 1-2 cases. They often do not agree with each other. They reach consensus and fax recommendations to me. The Friday addiction one was shut down and now I present to the Wednesday chronic pain one.

But, you say, PTSD? Well, chronic pain patients and opiate overuse patients have a very high rate of comorbid psychiatric diagnoses. It’s often hard to sort out. Are they self medicating because they have been traumatized or were they addicted first and then are depressed/traumatized and anxious? And what do you treat first?

There was an ADHD program at this conference that said we should deal with the ADHD first. One of the PTSD courses said deal with the PTSD first. The thing is, you really have to address BOTH AT ONCE.

Tools? PHQ-9, GAD-7, PCLC and there is an ADHD one too. These are short screening tools. I don’t diagnose with them. I use them to help guide therapy along with the invaluable urine drug screen. Love your patients but verify. That is, the chronic pain patient and the addiction patient tell me the same thing: but one is lying. I don’t take it personally because they are lying to themselves. Also, studies have shown that many patients lie, about their hypertension medicine or whatever. If they have to choose between food and medicine…. I think food may come first.

The San Antonio program has a behavioral health person embedded in their clinic (like a diamond) and if a PTSD screen is positive, the doctor or provider can walk them over and introduce them and get them set up. This is more likely to get the person to follow up, because there is still stigma and confusion for ALL mental health diagnoses and people often won’t call the counselor or psychologist or god forbid, psychiatrist.

They have a protocol for a short term four week treatment. Four weeks? You can’t treat PTSD in four weeks! Well, sometimes you can. But if you are making no progress, the person is referred on if they will go. I have the handouts. I do not have an embedded behavioral health person. I wish I did. I am thinking of setting a trap for one or luring them in to my clinic somehow, or asking if the AAFP would have one as a door prize next year, but…. meanwhile, I may do a trial of DIY. No! you say, you are not a shrink! Well, half of family medicine is actually sneaky behavioral health and I have the advantage of being set up to have more time with patients. Time being key. Also I have seven years of work with the telemedicine and access to that psychiatrist. Invaluable.

So what is the most common cause of civilian PTSD? Motor vehicle accidents. I didn’t know that. I would have said assault/rape. But no, it’s MVAs. Assault and rape are up there though, with a much higher PTSD rate if it is someone the victim knows or thought loved them. Rates in the US general population is currently listed at 1%, but at 12% of patients in primary care clinics. What? One in ten? Yes, because they show up with all sorts of chronic physical symptoms.

Re the military, it’s about the same. BUT noncombatant is 5%. High intensity combat has a PTSD risk of 25%, which is huge. One in four. Not a happy thing. In 2004 less then half the military personnel who needed care received it. PTSD needs to be destigmatized, prevented, treated compassionately and cured.

The risk of suicidality: 20% of PTSD people per year attempt. One in five.

Men tend to have more aggressiveness, women more depression.

Back to that PCLC. A score of over 33 is positive, over 55 is severe. There is sub threshold PTSD and it does carry a suicide risk as well. In treatment, a score drop of 10 is great, 5-10 is good and under 5, augment the treatment. Remember, the PCLC is a screening tool, not a diagnosis. I often ask people to fill out the PCLC, the GAD7 and the PHQ9 to see which is highest, to help guide me with medicines or therapy. If I need a formal diagnostic label, off to psychiatry or one of my PhD psychologists or neuropsych testing. Meanwhile, I am happy to use an adjustment disorder label if I need a label. If the patient is a veteran and says he or she has PTSD, ok, will use that.

Untreated PTSD, the rate of remission is one third at a year, the average remission is 64 months.

Treated PTSD, the rate of remission is one half at a year, and the average duration is 36 months. So treatment is not perfect by any means.

Pharmacology: FDA approved medicines include paroxetine and fluoxetine, and both venlafaxine and one other SSRI help.

Benzodiazepines make it worse! Do not use them! They work at the same receptor as alcohol, remember? So alcohol makes it worse too. There is no evidence for marijuana, but marijuana increases anxiety disorders: so no, we think it’s a bad idea. Those evil sleep medicines, for “short term use” (2 weeks and 6 weeks), ambien and sonata, they are related to benzos so I would extrapolate to them, don’t use them, bad.

Prazosin helps with sleep for some people. It lowers blood pressure and helps with enlarged prostates, so the sleep thing is off label and don’t stop it suddenly or the person could get rebound hypertension (risk for stroke and heart attack). I have a Vietnam veteran who says he has not slept so well since before Vietnam.

Part of the treatment for the PTSD folks at the U. of Texas Medical Center is again, destigmatization, normalization, education, awareness and treatment tools.

Hooray for hope for PTSD and for more tools to work with to help people!

Weaning methadone

Weaning high dose methadone down to a lower, safer, less likely to stop breathing and die dose is difficult, but it can be done. It needs both a determined patient and a determined physician who are willing to work together.

In 2010 I took a class in buprenorphine treatment for opiate overuse syndrome from the University of WA Medical Center and got started with their telemedicine, once a week, on line with the Pain and Addiction Clinic. Each week there was a teaching half hour and then an hour where we could present patients anonymously on the telemedecine to a panel: a pain specialist, an addiction specialist, a psychiatrist, a physiatrist, and a guest physician. Five consults at once! And they would discuss the case and fax recommendations to me.

Three weeks after the course, police and Medicaid and the DEA shut down the pain clinic 5 blocks from me, taking the computers. I acquired 30 patients in 3 weeks. Trial by fire.

By 2012 Washington State passed a pain medicine law. This says that a primary care physician can only prescribe up to 120 morphine dose equivalents for chronic pain. Anything higher and the patient should be checked by a pain specialist and there were not that many in the state.

120 morphine dose equivalents is up to 20 mg of methadone or possibly 30mg. Methadone has a very long half life so it’s a bit weird. Hydrocodone is one to one with morphine and oxycodone is 1.5 to one, so 90 mg of oxycodone is 120 morphine dose equivalents.

The law requires urine drug screens, careful record keeping, screening for adverse childhood experiences and regular visits. If the pain medicine is not effective, it is to be weaned. I had a couple of patients with over 100mg of methadone daily. That is way over the 120 morphine does equivalents and UW helped me help the patients start weaning.

First, they recommended dropping the dose by about 1/3. Some patients left immediately. I would give patients links to the law on line and explain that the concern is that opioids in combination with other sedating drugs and alcohol are killing more people than either guns or car wrecks or illegal drugs in the United States and the CDC has declared it an epidemic. Honestly, doctors really take the “first, do no harm” seriously and we do not want to kill people. One angry patient said “Your first job is to keep me pain free.” I said, “No, my first job is to not kill you.”

For those who stayed, dropping the dose by 1/4 or 1/3 worked. They had about two weeks of mild withdrawal symptoms and then gradually felt better. These were at doses of 120-150mg methadone daily. We started weaning then by 10mg or about 10% every couple of months. The UW Pain Clinic was doing this simultaneously.

In 2012 the WA PMP started as well. This is a central pharmacy reporting for all controlled substances. Controlled substances means addictive and monitored by the DEA. Even the head of the WA Pain Clinic found that he had 5-6 patients who were getting opioids from 4-5 different doctors. He said, “We do have to check because I thought I knew my patients and I would have none. I was wrong and I was surprised.” Those patients could be taking way more than any of their doctors knew or could be selling pills. Not a happy thing.

Once the methadone folks got down to about 1/3 of the high dose, we had to slow down. For my patients that meant at 40-50mg. The head of the pain clinic said wean by 5 mg or 2.5mg and do it every 6-8 weeks.

As people were weaned, their pain level stayed about the same. They would have an initial increase for the first two weeks. I describe it as follows: Think of it as if you are in a room listening to a stereo. The pain medicine is like noise protecting headphones. Once you are wearing the headphones, your brain says, uh, I can’t hear (feel pain). Hearing (feeling pain) is important information, so the brain turns up the volume. Way up if the dose is really high. Then you take the headphones off: OW!! IT’S TOO LOUD! THE SOUND (PAIN) IS BLOWING OUT YOUR EARDRUMS (HURTING LIKE HELL)!!!

Weaning slowly gives the brain a chance to turn the volume down on the receptors. UW said that at best chronic opiates lower pain an average of 30%. After a while, I said I had trouble telling the difference between withdrawal pain and increased chronic pain: they look the same. UW said, “Looks the same to us too.” But we had frequent visits and an ongoing discussion about pain. Pain is necessary for survival: you have to know if you are injured. Diabetics who can’t feel their feet are instructed to look all over their feet every day to check for injury and infection. I had one gentleman who couldn’t feel his feet and put them on a wood stove because they felt cold. He was needing skin grafts from the burns. So we need to feel pain and not numb it all the time. Also pain has three or more componants: the sharp cut/broken/bruised immediate pain. Second is nerve pain. Third is emotional pain, and we don’t yet have a meter that gives us what percentage each is contributing to the total sum. When I have a new chronic pain patient, I say that ALL THREE must be treated. We can argue about the details, but they can’t leave the emotional piece out…. or they have to find another doctor.

Also, at the higher doses, hyperalgesia is common, pain from the opioid itself. People felt better at lower doses. I gave people the links so they could read the law and the CDC information themselves. They were shocked and angry and threatened at first, but the “I don’t want you to die from too high a dose and it’s not safe and I am sorry.” message would get through eventually.

“Why do you have to do urine drug screens?” say some people. “You are treating me like an addict.”

My reply, “What do you think the addicts tell me?”

The person thinks about it. “The same thing?”

“Absolutely. So I can’t tell unless I check. Also, the boundary between chronic opiate use and opiate overuse is a lot thinner than we thought, so I have to check because all chronic opiate people are at risk for overuse.” The DSM-V combines opioid dependence and opiate addiction into opiate overuse syndrome, a spectrum from mild to moderate to severe.

We also talked about other ways of dealing with chronic pain. John Kabat Zinn’s mindfulness meditation classes drop pain levels by an average of 50%, so better than opioids. And way safer.

Meanwhile, since people could no longer get opioid pills from 4-5 doctors at once, the supply in Washington started drying up. Some people realized they had opiate overuse syndrome as well as chronic pain and turned to methadone clinics or buprenorphine clinics. Others went to heroin. The heroin overdose death rate has risen. I hope that as the stigma surrounding “addiction” changes into a better understanding of chronic pain and opiate overuse syndrome, more people will be able to get treatment and the death rate and heroin use will go back down.

https://depts.washington.edu/anesth/care/pain/pain-roosevelt.shtml

http://www.cdc.gov/cdcgrandrounds/archives/2011/01-february.htm

http://www.doh.wa.gov/ForPublicHealthandHealthcareProviders/HealthcareProfessionsandFacilities/PainManagement

http://www.doh.wa.gov/ForPublicHealthandHealthcareProviders/HealthcareProfessionsandFacilities/PrescriptionMonitoringProgramPMP

http://www.uwmedicine.org/referrals/telehealth-services

https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/prescription-drugs/opioids/what-are-opioids

http://www.umassmed.edu/cfm/about-us/people/2-meet-our-faculty/kabat-zinn-profile/

 

 

Chronic pain and antidepressants

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