from the mist

For the Daily Prompt: forest.

My town is a forest at sunrise and sunset. The trees take over, dark against the sky. And look,  something is rising from the mist.

Medicine is like that too. Did the epidemic of unintentional overdose deaths catch you by surprise? People, including doctors, thought opioids were safe, if taken correctly. And that we should increase them if the person still had chronic pain. But the information is still changing and taking shape from the fog.

I have worked with the University of Washington Telepain service since 2011. I can’t attend every week, but many weeks I spend Wednesday lunch in front of the computer, logged on to hear a thirty minute lecture from UW and then to hear cases presented from all over the state.

I want to sing the praises of the doctors on Telepain and the Washington State Legislature for having this program. Here is a link to a five minute King5  news program about UW Telepain.

Forty two different sites were logged on. There are also UW Telemedicine programs for hepatitis C and for patients with addiction and psychiatric problems. The advantage is that all of we rural doctors learn from one doctor presenting a patient and the panel discussing it and making recommendations. We have Dr. Tauben, head of the pain clinic, a psychiatrist, a physiatrist, a family doctor who treats opioid addiction, a psychologist and a social worker. And often a guest speaker! We have a standard form to fill out, with no names: year of birth and male or female. It is a team that can help us to care for our patients.

New information in healthcare rises out of the mist….


Vital signs II

Pain is not a vital sign anymore, as I described in yesterday’s post. I wrote this poem in 2006, about pain  being the fifth vital sign. I disagreed.

Vital signs II

Is now a vital sign
On a scale of 1:10
What is your pain?
The nurses document
Every shift

Why isn’t joy
a vital sign?

In the hospital
we do see joy

and pain

I want feeling cared for
to be a vital sign

My initial thought
is that it isn’t
because we can’t treat it

But that isn’t true

I have been brainwashed

We can’t treat it
with drugs

We measure pain
and are told to treat it
helpful pamphlets
sponsored by the pharmaceutical companies
have articles
from experts

Pain is under treated
by primary care
in the hospital
and there are all
these helpful medicines

I find
in my practice
that much of the pain
I see
cannot be treated
with narcotics
and responds better
to my ear

To have someone
really listen
and be curious
and be present
when the person

If feeling cared for
were a vital sign

Some people
I think
have almost never felt cared for
in their lives

They might say
I feel cared for 2 on a scale of 10

And what could the nurses do?

No pills to fix the problem

But perhaps
if that question
were followed by another

Is there anything we can do
to make you feel more cared for?

I wonder
if asking the question
is all we need

first draft 5/20/06

I took the photograph Friday afternoon from the beach: two fronts were meeting. What is that like in the sky? Do they fight or welcome each other?

Pain as a vital sign

A recent article in the Family Practice News says that a survey of 225 physicians reveals that 33% of them think that the opioid crisis in the US is caused by over prescribing opioids. 24% said aggressive patient drug seeking and 18% said it is due to drug dealers. How quickly things change.

In 1996 pain was declared the fifth vital sign, after temperature,  pulse (heart rate), respiration rate and blood pressure. I disagreed with it because it focused on pain, by telling the nurses in the hospital and the outpatient providers to always to ask about pain. I thought it would be better to focus on level of comfort than pain. I thought we were using opioids far too freely and I thought that patients were getting addicted. The pain specialists said that we had to treat pain, and we were given very few tools other than opioids. Primary care providers were told that they could be sued for too much or too little pain medicine.

I also disagreed with it because pain is NOT a vital sign. That is, the level of pain does not correlate with illness. If a person has a high fever of 104 I am sure they are sick, a fast or very slow heart rate, a blood pressure too high or two low, they are breathing too fast: these are vital signs. They often correlate to illness and help us decide if this is outpatient, urgent or emergent. But pain does not. A chronic pain patient may have a pain level of 8/10 and yet not be an emergency or in a life-threatening state at all. That does not mean that they are lying or that we don’t wish to help with pain.

In June, 2016, the American Medical Association recommended dropping pain as a vital sign. The Joint Commission for Hospital Accreditation dropped pain as a vital sign in August, 2016.

Why? Not only were people getting addicted to opiates, but they were and are dying of unintentional overdoses: sedation from opiates with alcohol, with anxiety medicines such as benzodiazepines, with soma, with sleep medicines such as ambien and zolpidem. If the person is sedated enough, they stop breathing and die. The CDC declared an epidemic of unintentional overdoses in 2012: and said that more US citizens were dying of prescription medicines taken as instructed then from motor vehicle accidents and guns and illegal drugs.

So the poem below and a second poem I will post tomorrow reflect how I thought about pain as a vital sign. It is not a vital sign, because a high pain level does not tell me if the person is critically ill and may die. It does not correlate. Pain matters and we want to treat it, but the first responsibility is “do not harm”. Letting people get addicted and killing some is harm.

Also, opioids have limited effectiveness and high risk for chronic pain. I have worked with  The University of Washington Pain and Addiction Clinic since 2010 via telemedicine. They say that average improvement of chronic pain with opioids is about 30%. Higher and higher doses do not help and increase the risk of overdose and death. And the risk of addiction.

I think of pain as information. Studies of fibromyalgia patients with functional MRI of the brain show that they are not lying about their pain. In a study normal and fibromyalgia patients were given the same pain stimulus on the hand. The normal patients said that they felt 3-4/10 pain. The fibromyalgia patients felt 7-8/10 pain with the same stimulus and the pain centers lit up correspondingly more in their brains. So they are not lying.

Why would opioids only lower chronic pain about 30% even with higher doses? The brain considers pain important information. We need to snatch our finger away from a flame, stop if we smash our toe, deal with a broken bone. I think of opioids like noise cancelling headphones. Say you are listening to music. You put on headphones/take round the clock opioids. Your brain automatically turns up the gain: the music volume or the pain sensors. Now it hurts again. You take more. The brain turns up the gain. Now: take the noise cancelling headphones off. The music/pain is too loud and it hurts! With music we can turn it down, but the brain cannot adjust the gain for pain quickly.

We do not understand the shift from acute pain to chronic pain, yet. The shift is in the brain. I think that we are too quick to mask and block pain rather than use the information. Now the recommendations for opioids are to only use them for 3-5 days for acute pain and injury. For years I have said with any opioid prescription: try not to take them around the clock and try to decrease the use as soon as possible. Some people get addicted. Be careful.

If we don’t hand people a pill for pain, what can we do? There are more and more therapies. Jon Kabot Zinn’s 30 years of studying mindfulness meditation is very important. His chronic pain classes reduce pain by an average of 50%: better than opiates. Pain and stress hormones drop by 50% in a study of a one hour massage. Massage, physical therapy, chiropracty and acupuncture: different people respond to different modalities. Above all, reassuring people that the level of pain in chronic pain does not correlate to the level of illness or ongoing damage. And pain is composed of at least three parts: the sharp nocioceptive pain, nerve pain (neuropathic) and emotional pain. We must address the emotional part too. We have no tool at this time to sort the pain into the three categories. My rule is that I always address all three. That does not mean every person needs a counselor or psychiatrist. It means that we must have time to discuss stress and discuss life events and check in about coping.

In the survey of 225 providers, 50% estimated that they prescribe opioids to fewer than 10% of their patients. 38% said less than half. 12% estimated that they prescribe opioids to more than half their patients. The survey included US primary care, emergency department and pain management physicians.

Handing people a pill is quicker. But we can do better and primary care must have the time to really help people with pain.

Vital Signs I

In the hospital now
I am told we have a new
Vital sign
Like blood pressure and pulse
We are to measure
And always treat it

Sometimes I wonder

Mr. X is in the ICU
I tell his family
He may die

On a scale of one to ten
What is his wife’s pain?
His daughter’s
We are not treating them
Only Mr. X

We try to suppress pain
Signals from our nerves
Physical pain is easier

I think of our great forests
We suppressed fire

And that was wrong
If fire is suppressed
Undergrowth builds up
Fuel levels rise
Fire comes
Rages out of control
All is destroyed

If fires burn
More naturally
More regularly
What is left?

At first it looks desolate
The tall trees are burnt
Around their bases
But they live
Adapted to the fire
Majestic pines
Would our values were as clear

Some pines
Will only germinate
In fire
When the undergrowth
Is cleared
Conditions are right
For new growth

Perhaps pain is our fire
Grief is our fire

If we block pain
Where does it go?
Does the fuel build?

I wonder if the tall pines
Fear fire
Would they avoid it
If they could

Perhaps suppression
Is not the answer

Perhaps we can change
Remain present
Acknowledge pain
As normal
As joy

Perhaps if I
Step into the fire
I can remain
For you

And you will be
Less alone
Less afraid

I open my doors

Let the fire burn

poem written before 2009

CDC guidelines for treating chronic pain:


This is for the Daily Prompt: discover.

I see people out with ear buds in place, walking or running. I also see people outside face down towards their phones.

I am sending people outdoors from my clinic, without ear buds, with cell phone off or silenced.

We need the sensory input from forests, from the outdoors, from fields, from beaches. We need the unpredictable and to USE all our senses. Smell, sound, proprioception… Proprioception is your feet telling you whether you are on a flat surface or little stones or a dirt path or that there is a rock there. My daughter and I walked on the beach last night, without a flashlight. I stumbled more than her. We discussed night vision and clearly hers is better than mine. We could see the light of Seattle reflecting from the clouds and onto the water of the Salish Sea. Mostly clouds, a few stars, no streetlights. We could see the windows of houses along the beach. The tide was out and the waves were very quiet, and we walked into a flock of sandpipers who called.

When my son was 18 months old, we took him to family land in Ontario, Canada, with old cabins on a lake. The paths are dirt. I ran those paths in the dark as a child for years, and every year the rocks and sticks were different. My son was used to floors and sidewalks and a grassy yard. For the first few days he stumbled on the paths, which are not even. By the time we left, he was running the paths with ease.

We need that sensory input and proprioception and to use all of our senses. When we get new complex sensory input, chronic pain sensors are turned down, as the brain is engaged to evaluate new information. We need outdoors, we need sensory input, we need uneven paths and beaches and rocks, we need to practice balance or else we lose the skills….

Turn off your phone. Take off your headphones. I exchange calls with birds often. I hear eagles and can imitate their call. I am good enough that sometimes the eagles that I cannot even see when I call, will drop down from the sky to see where the sound came from….Am I some sort of weird eagle insulting them?

Happy solstice and joy to you and yours.





Does back pain mean a disc?

Does back pain mean a disc?

Does sciatica, pain down the sciatic nerve, all the way down the leg, mean a lumbar disc is out of position and you need back surgery?

Ninety nine times out of one hundred: No.

No? What? Really? Doesn’t back pain and sciatic pain mean a disc is pressing on the nerve?


Sciatica means that the nerve is annoyed. It is sending pain signals. It can be irritated and inflamed anywhere along the entire path of the nerve. When the nerve is inflammed or there is surrounding inflamation, the nerve sends pain signals.

But… if it is not a disc, WHAT IS IT?

Muscles that are injured, inflamed, irritated, contracted or torn, that in turn put pressure on or inflame the nerve.

The sciatic nerve is made up of multiple nerve roots coming from the spinal cord: L3, L4, L5, S1, S2, S3. And then variants. The nerve roots bundle together and then dive through a group of muscles and go down the back of the leg: deep in the muscles. Why deep? To protect this very big, very important, bundle of nerves. Branches veer off and innervate muscles and bone and tendon and fascia, all the way down to the toes. There is not a spinal column in the leg, to protect this nerve.

It dives in between the superior gemellus and the piriformes muscle, deep in the buttock. Under the gluteus maximus and the gluteus minimus. Then it goes down the leg, under the semitendonosus muscle and the biceps femoris muuscle, the big hamstrings.

Now, let’s go back up to the low back. Why does it hurt? With or without sciatica? There are six layers of muscles in the back, all way smaller than those hamstrings. The top is the latissimus dorsi, down 5 more layers to the small longus and brevis rotares muscles, which connect each vertebral bone and allow subtle and complex movements of the spine.

What happens when a muscle is torn or injured? People look blank in clinic when I ask. I say, “Think of a piece of steak, what happens when you cut it?” They still look blank. “It BLEEDS, right?” When a muscle is torn or injured and bleeds, it and the surrounding muscles cramp up as much as they can, to try to prevent further bleeding and tearing. If it is an extremity, ace wrap, elevate and ice, as soon as possible, to slow the swelling and bleeding and pain. If it is the lower back muscles, ice as soon as possible and applying pressure won’t hurt. No heat for 48 hours since muscle bleeding and swelling and inflammation usually peak at 48 hours. After 48 hours apply heat, then gently stretch, then ice after stretching.

Think of the muscle fibers as torn. They take about 6 to 8 weeks to fully heal. You want to stretch them and rehabilitate them without tearing them in that 6-8 weeks. You want every muscle to be fully functional, to be the right length, to not heal shortened or scarred. Get those fibers working again…


But doctor, my back has been hurting for FIVE YEARS!

Then it will take longer than 6 to 8 weeks to rehabilitate, retrain the muscles, gently break down the scar tissue, get it all functioning. Your muscles are doing their best. They told you they were hurt and you need to listen to them.

Covering it up with ibuprofen or alcohol or any number of substances or trying to ignore what your muscles are trying to tell you is a bit counter productive, don’t you think? Pain is information. An advil can help with the pain, but it does NOT fix the problem. “Drug me so that I can go on ignoring it.”…. uh, no. That is not ethical and it also doesn’t work.

And just think, if those back muscles continue tighter and tighter… they are constricting and pulling on the spinal bones.  They pull on those bones and then a disc might be thinned or crushed and might protrude and then press on a nerve. And then for surgery, what do they do to get to the disc? Cut through the six layers of muscle….

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.



does chronic pain kill you?

Another writer sent me this story, saying that chronic pain killed Prince, not an overdose.

My response is complex.

1. Is chronic pain an “illness” in it’s own right?

My answer is yes and no. It’s complicated and our understanding is evolving. Right now I think of chronic pain as a switch in the brain that gets thrown. It can be thrown by adverse childhood experiences, by infection, by trauma or war or abuse, by too much stress… or a combination of any of these.

2. Why a switch in the brain?

In fibromyalgia patients we can’t find much on physical exam, except that the pain seems out of proportion to the exam. Ditto with chronic fatigue, reflex sympathetic dystrophy, TMJ, etc. However, now we can image the brain with a functional MRI and watch which parts are lighting up and how much. A study of “normal” and fibromyalgia patients involved a standardized pain stimulus: a thumbscrew. (Kinky, right?) The normal patients said the pain stimulus was 3-4 out of 10 and their brains lit up a certain amount. The fibromyalgia patients said the same pain stimulus was 7-8 out of 10 and the pain parts of the brain lit up MORE corresponding to their pain level. So they are not lying… and it IS in their heads. Sort of. We aren’t sure whether the muscle is yelling more than normal or whether the brain is hypersensitive or both. My guess would be both.

And I think this is an adaptation. It is to get us to rest, heal, calm down, introspect, stop being type A, etc. Boy, do we suck at it. Though recently I had a person in clinic who said what their body wanted to do was nothing. They just wanted to lie around. I said, well, ok, so when can you do that? They did, for two weeks, at the holidays. And my patient said, “One day I had a cup of tea and a book and the cat on my lap and the dog at my feet. I realized that my adrenaline system was turning off and I felt calm and relaxed. Healed.” Back at work the person cannot always maintain it but is getting better at it.

3. What does this have to do with Prince?

The problem is that for 20 years we treated chronic pain with opiates. Unfortunately on continuous opiates, the brain cells change in many people and “down-regulate” the opiate receptors. Less receptors, the pain rises. The person needs more opiate. The brain removes more receptors. So two myths: one that if you have chronic pain and take medicine as directed, you can’t get addicted. Only dependent. Since that is a myth, the DSM-V has combined addiction and dependence into one diagnosis: opioid overuse syndrome. It is a spectrum, not two separate responses.

The second myth is that if you give enough opioid, it will help the pain. Well, no. UW Pain and Addiction Clinic says that on average pain is reduced about 30% by opiods, whatever the dose. And high doses start causing some weird  hyperalgesias. I’ve weaned two people from over 100mg methadone daily down to 20-30mg. It took two years. They felt better on the lower dose after they got through withdrawal symptoms and a short term increase in the pain receptors complaining at them. And they are much less likely to overdose and die.

Page two here discusses current knowledge about opioids.

4. So like, Prince?

He may have died from a combination of fatigue and sedating drugs. If you get enough sedating drugs, then you stop breathing. Opioids are the biggest offenders combined with alcohol or sleep medicine like ambien or benzodiazepines like valium or ativan or alprazolam or muscle relaxants like methacarbomal or a combination of all of the above. I am a strict physician about urine drugs screens and I do the dip in clinic in front of the person. Way too often, the person does not tell me about the alprazolam or whatever until I am holding the dip over the cup…. and that’s when they tell me. They got it from the ER or a friend or two years ago or … took their dog’s. Really.

He may have died from influenza, if he had it, with sedating drugs. Bad influenza causes lung tissue swelling and can mess up your oxygenation. Your heart has to take up the slack and go faster. If you are trying to work and your heart rate is well above normal, it’s exhausting. It can kill you.

He may have died from overwork, another infection, sedating medicines…. but not directly from chronic pain. Chronic pain slows us but I do not think it kills us*. What kills us is trying to treat it with a pill instead of resting and doing gentle exercise and saying: What does my body want?


5. Overdose?

Also, are we talking about an accidental overdose? Are we talking about drug abuse? Are we talking about accidental death or suicide or do we as a society think that addiction deserves overdose death but a person taking medicine for chronic pain is a tragedy? Aren’t we a bit judgemental?

Prince may have taken a pain pill as directed but taken it with too many other controlled substances or with alcohol or while sick and exhausted. Overdose means too high a dose. If it was two percocets, alcohol, flu and xanax…. it could be an accidental poisoning.

6. Are you sure?

No. Medicine changes. Our understanding of the brain changes. Science is about change and deepening understanding. We are barely getting started on the brain and I would say that we are in preschool there.



*Stress alone can cause heart attacks and sudden death:

The photograph is from a week ago, part of my Maxfield Parish cloud series, zoomed way in to the mountains across the water.