Tag Archives: pain management

Pain Management, Wellbeing in Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has put an enormous strain on the healthcare system, delaying non-emergency medical care, potentially creating a higher risk for pain patients. However, the behavioral health community is adjusting with transitions to telemedicine and other alternatives that allow their patients to receive the care they need. With clinicians feeling additional stress during this time, telehealth options are readily available for the healthcare community, too. We cannot expect those working in healthcare to properly care for others unless we are prioritizing their mental health needs.

Two of the leading researchers and practitioners in pain medicine joined us for our special edition Out Front Ideas COVID-19 Briefing Webinar Series to discuss the challenges of treating pain patients during the pandemic and how the healthcare landscape is adapting:

  • Beth Darnall, PhD – pain psychologist and associate professor, Department of Anesthesiology, Perioperative and Pain Management at Stanford Health Care
  • Steven P. Stanos, DO – medical director of pain medicine and medical director of occupational medicine services at Seattle’s Swedish Health

Workplace Wellbeing

Due to the additional stress that the pandemic has created for healthcare workers, behavioral health psychology and counseling have become available in many primary care facilities. The behavioral health industry has a concierge of services that allow doctors to work with a therapist confidentially in a time of need. This “care for caregivers” model also includes Zoom-based videos and lectures covering helpful techniques like tai chi demonstrations, breathing exercises, guided meditations and chair yoga. These videos are then saved in an archive, making them readily available for later use when caregivers need them. While created to get through the stress of the pandemic, these videos will help to alleviate tension that healthcare workers face regularly.

Behavioral health, as well as many other clinical disciplines, had to rapidly adjust to telehealth visits, creating safer access for patients. Not only does this alleviate stress for the clinicians, it creates a safer workspace for clinicians and staff alike. In addition to the creation of video resources for the healthcare community, crisis management and wellness resources are available. Organizations like the American Psychological Association have created online resources that collate information for clinicians and administrative leaders, providing on-demand access when they need it most.

Patient Wellbeing

COVID-19 has created disruptions in all areas of our lives, but it has been especially challenging for those managing chronic pain. These patients are seeking stabilization in their lives, but continued disruptions have complicated their paths to wellness. These disruptions can compound mental and physical ailments for a pain patient, making it especially difficult for those with co-morbidities. The pandemic has exposed the vulnerability of opioid patients given the difficulty it has created for those who need access to medications. Some patients have requested options to taper off opioids or reduce their usage since the current environment may leave them feeling even less in control. 

Because patients are at the mercy of the elements currently, it is increasingly critical to use patient-centered communication. Many pain patients who were just beginning to develop regular schedules are now dealing with the stress from a lack of routine. Refreshing patients on skills learned through previous treatments may help create structure and give clinicians key insights into their at-home routines. Understanding a patient’s stress level can make medication refills easier because conditions like anxiety may be exacerbated currently, putting an opioid patient more at risk than usual. This continued communication will be key when there is a return to normalcy, to maintain consistency in the care of an injured worker.

Treating Pain During COVID-19

Accessibility is essential in treating pain patients throughout the pandemic. Nearly all visits have become telehealth visits, including psychological follow-ups and physical therapy. Behavioral medicine now offers options like individual or group sessions and on-demand treatments that can be used without a therapist. Immersive, experimental treatments, like virtual reality (VR), have created more engaging therapy for patients, putting control in their hands so they can get help when they need it. This portfolio of options, including internet-based treatments, creates readily accessible care for pain patients.

Patients who were involved in rehabilitative programs can now experience treatment virtually. The same content they would receive in-office, through physical therapy, pain education and relaxation training, can be delivered through courses a few days a week. A couple of options for these treatments include Zoom group visits or private YouTube videos, which comply with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). 

All of these virtual programs work to support the hospitals when they need it most. For those experiencing significant pain and those with co-morbidities, emergency procedure clinics are now open to avoid ER visits and waiting on an approval process through a hospital. These clinics help to reserve hospital capacity for patients who need it most during the pandemic. 

Current Research

The need for alternative treatments during the pandemic has created a wave of new research and guidelines for therapy. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) introduced the “Heal Initiative” to reduce opioid usage and awards grants for tools creating alternative pain management. One of those viable options includes VR, which has shown to be equivalent and sometimes even more effective than in-person pain therapy. These concepts retrain a patient’s brain and can optimize experiences based on biofeedback. This type of experimental treatment is especially helpful in areas where there are not enough trained clinicians to deal with those experiencing acute and chronic pain. As this technology gets increasingly cheaper, it will create better long-term tools for patients in need.

New guidelines created by the American Academy of Pain Medicine (AAPM) and the American Society of Regional Anesthesia (ASRA), in conjunction with Veterans Affairs (VA) and the Department of Defense, outline best practices for pain management during the pandemic. This document also addresses public health issues and the welfare of providers. It covers the potential issues surrounding telemedicine, explains how to treat opioid management, outlines mental health considerations for patients and healthcare providers and defines emergency procedures, like those associated with cancer patients. The document discusses emergency procedures for patients with poorly controlled pain that need opioids and how to help those experiencing withdrawals from use. The document also advises the use of acetaminophen to treat pain because the topic is still controversial in its interactions with the treatment of COVID-19. 

See also: Impact of COVID-19 on Workers’ Comp

While this period is transcending longstanding barriers now that on-demand care has been proven necessary, it is also important to continue assessing pain from a multidimensional perspective. This includes evaluating the risk for each patient, so in-person psychological evaluations are being used to treat the more symptomatic patients. Using resources like patient records and history to discern patients’ pain can provide insight into which patients may be more at risk. Though it may seem that telehealth visits could increase the risk of opioid abuse, there is no evidence on the extent of that risk when it is still the same patient reporting the same pain value, in-office or not. It is critical to take a patient’s reporting at face value and remember that pain will always be subjective.

To listen to the full Out Front Ideas with Kimberly and Mark webinar on this topic, click here. Stay tuned for more from the Out Front Ideas COVID-19 Briefing Webinar Series, every Tuesday in April. View the full list of coming topics here.

Alternatives to Opioids for Pain Management

One of the areas of focus on Out Front Ideas with Kimberly and Mark has been addressing chronic pain without opioids. The workers’ compensation industry’s approach to chronic pain has historically been trying drugs and other medical procedures first. Then, if the pain has not subsided or has worsened, we look for psychological factors. If we truly want to help injured workers in pain and prevent opioid abuse and other unnecessary measures, we need to reverse that protocol. To learn more, we spoke with two of the nation’s most highly respected pain management experts, who gave us great insights into the experience of pain, how it can be best treated and non-pharmaceutical ways to treat pain.

Beth Darnell is a clinical associate professor in the division of pain management at Stanford; a clinical pain psychologist at the Stanford Pain Management Center; an NIH-funded scientist doing research on psychological treatment for chronic pain; one of the co-chairs of the Pain Psychology Task Force at the American Academy of Pain Medicine; one of the co-authors of the 2017 Chronic Pain Guideline updates from the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine; and author of multiple books on the subject: “Less Pain, Fewer Pills” and “The Opioid-Free Pain Relief Kit” — both written for patients. Dr. Darnell also recently co-published a research paper on The JAMA Network titled “Patient-Centered Prescription Opioid Tapering in Community Outpatients with Chronic Pain”

Dr. Steve Stanos is the medical director of pain management services for the Swedish Medical System in Seattle and runs the pain services for five hospitals in the system; the director of Occupational Medicine Services at Swedish; the president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine; and the medical director for myMatrixx. He was also a reviewer for the CDC’s Guidelines for Opioid Management and was involved in the National Pain Strategy.

Myths and Facts

Many of us have preconceived ideas about pain — what it is and how it should be treated. Unfortunately, many of these ideas are misconceptions and have led us to where we are today.

We think of pain as solely a physical experience. But our experts explained that pain is really a negative sensory and emotional experience. Psychology is an integral part of the pain experience, and, if we ignore that, we are not adequately addressing an injured worker’s pain.

Pain is very helpful in alerting us to situations where our bodies are at risk. If you put your hand on a hot stove, for example, the pain signals your brain to remove your hand. However, that does not work well for chronic pain when the continuing pain alert does not help us. Instead, it causes us fear and stress, which can actually exacerbate the pain. Those fears and stress are what we need to address in injured workers with chronic pain.

Another misconception is that people in pain are powerless to do anything about it and are at the mercy of drugs or other medical procedures. That simply is not true. There are teachable skills patients can use to assuage their own pain. These are learned skills.

See also: Is There an Answer to Opioid Crisis?  

We need to help injured workers understand and deal with the psychology of their pain experience up front, instead of waiting until the claim deteriorates. Medical providers, payers and others involved in a claim need to be aware of that and work with the injured worker to empower him or her to reduce their fears and stress and, in doing so, reduce their pain.

That leads us to another misconception — that dealing with the psychology of pain requires a specialist for extended sessions. Actually, non-behavioral health individuals can teach valuable skills to help cope with pain.

Again, this should be done early in the claim process for the best outcomes. The best predictor of outcomes in a pain program is early intervention with psychosocial factors. We need to have an early emphasis on behavioral health.

Yet another falsehood is that using drugs and medical procedures first is better for the patient because it does not assume he or she has any psychological issues. Instead, we are missing the elephant in the room, and, when the injured worker is finally sent for psychological intervention, it can be demoralizing. It sends a message to the injured worker that he or she is a failure and that the pain is all in his or her head. It does a terrible disservice to the injured worker.

We asked our experts whether all patients in chronic pain need psychological intervention. The answer was, yes, anyone in chronic pain can benefit from some level of behavioral intervention. That does not mean long-term, expensive, one-on-one treatments with a trained psychologist. Again, there are teachable skills to deal with chronic pain. The focus is on changing behavior.

Non-Pharma Pain Treatments

There are a variety of programs to help people deal with pain, many of which are based on cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This short-term treatment is goal-oriented and takes a practical approach to problem solving by changing patterns of thinking and behavior. Doing so helps change the way patients feel.

CBT is considered the gold standard of psychological treatment for chronic pain. It teaches concrete information and skills with action plans to move forward. It helps in creating care pathways that promote organized and efficient patient care based on evidence-based medicine. It helps patients become engaged and active in their own treatment so they rely on themselves more than the medical system.

Patients can learn the skills of behavioral health principles through classes and videos as well as by talking with therapists and others. Again, it is something anyone in pain can and should learn — not just those who are profoundly depressed or have other, more serious psychosocial issues. It is active management of pain.

Some newer treatments include mindfulness training, acceptance and commitment therapy and chronic pain self-management. These are all based somewhat on CBT, although not necessarily on pain management. Acceptance and commitment therapy trains you to stay focused in the moment so you do not react to pain. Negatively reacting to pain can be more distressing than the pain itself.

These programs teach people how to self-soothe. They also help establish meaningful goals and the steps to achieve them so people are not stuck in a passive mindset about their pain.

Functional restoration programs incorporate many of these aspects and can also be great, not only for at-risk patients already struggling with chronic pain, but also for early intervention. These programs have been around for years and typically involve physical and occupational therapy, psychology, relaxation training, exercise and vocational rehabilitation. The cost is fairly inexpensive when you compare them to unnecessary surgeries, so they can be helpful.

There are also certain medical procedures and services that have been overused in the past but can actually have a role as part of an overall pain management plan. Spinal cord stimulators and injections are among them, along with chiropractic care and spinal manipulation. These can help with function for certain patients, such as those with acute pain. But they must be integrated into an overall plan, and they are only appropriate for certain individuals.

Passive treatments, such as acupuncture and massage therapy, might be helpful for some pain patients, at least in the short term. But again, it needs to be used in conjunction with an active therapy program in which the patient is helping to manage his own pain through skills learned from CBT and other techniques.

One treatment on which both experts are hesitant to recommend at this point is medical marijuana, mostly because of its classification as a Schedule I drug under federal law. The science on it is just too sparse; there is no safety regimen around it and no protocols for when to use it, what type to use and how much could help.

“Prehab” is a relatively new term that might hold some promise. Think of rehab before the fact. It focuses on things like wellness, how to relax during the day and stress reduction techniques. The idea is to intervene with patients prior to surgery or other treatments and prevent poor outcomes. Patients who have fear avoidance or catastrophic thinking can be taught skills so they are better able to deal with their pain and stress later on.

Education programs are key in helping pain patients to avoid overuse of medications and services. Because so many do not understand pain or how to control it, they may seek multiple treatments to eliminate the pain.

Opioid Guidelines

The 2017 revisions to the ACOEM Chronic Pain Guidelines, released in May 2017, included an extensive section on behavioral health, the role of psychology and recommendations to integrate psychological principles in chronic pain.

The CDC’s guidelines for managing opioids have been invaluable in the attention they have brought to the opioid issue since they were released last year. However there has been some confusion and pushback, especially on the recommendations that deal with the morphine equivalent dose. The CDC recommends providers avoid or carefully justify prescriptions of more than 90 MED. Some payers have incorrectly interpreted that to mean physicians cannot prescribe above the 90 MED.

Another controversial recommendation says providers should only prescribe opioids for the duration of expected pain, typically between three and seven days. But some providers have been mistakenly told they can only prescribe the drugs for a specific number of days.

See also: Misconception That Leads to Opioids  

The Future

Both experts say a shift from fee-for-service to outcomes-based care could be a huge benefit because it would allow for a more holistic approach, including the integration of behavioral health. Putting behavioral health efforts on the front end of the claim is one of the biggest changes that they believe would help chronic pain patients. This would be a game changer in the workers’ compensation system and would cost more up front, but the speakers believe it would pay off in dividends.

Precision medicine is an emerging field that the speakers say could provide great promise for treating injured workers with chronic pain. It involves deep phenotyping patients on the front end and at each point of care. It includes an array of psychosocial variables and assessments to determine the specific needs of each patient for targeted interventions. It moves beyond the one-size-fits-all approach.

Technological advancements will allow for more and better treatment, such as apps and videos that reinforce behavioral health techniques. Telemedicine is a way to help keep patients engaged. Telehealth can allow for virtual face-to-face meetings between patients and psychologists. Virtual reality also holds promise as a way to help decrease pain levels during treatments.

Clearly there is much that the industry can do to reap better outcomes for our injured workers and, in turn, their employers. However, we need new ways of thinking; a change in the way we have been doing things. All stakeholders need to truly understand pain and what we can do to address it better and faster.

Dangerous Confusion on ‘Painandsuffering’

What is pain? According to Merriam-Webster, it is “the physical feeling caused by disease, injury or something that hurts the body.” Which is different than suffering: “to become worse because of being badly affected by something.” Often, these words are treated as synonyms (or as a single word, “painandsuffering”) when they are actually quite different. Pain is what happens to you. Suffering is how you handle it.

The confusion of these two terms can create issues.

The American Pain Society in 1996 described “pain as the fifth vital sign” (giving it equal status with blood pressure, heart rate, respiratory rate and temperature). The phrase created a perfect storm because it coincided with the message being delivered to medical schools and the healthcare industry that doctors had an opioid phobia and were under-treating pain. That was followed in 2000 by the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO) establishing standards for pain assessment and management. Then the Veterans Health Administration incorporated the new emphasis into its national pain management strategy. So, regardless of where a patient was treated and by whom, the (subjective, patient-driven) assessment of pain was one of the first questions asked and often drove treatment plans.

Then the new approach began to be questioned. A 2006 study by the VA found quantifying pain “did not increase the quality of pain management.” In June 2016, the American Medical Association recommended removing “pain as the fifth vital sign” and connected the idea to the beginning of over-prescribing of opioids. Opponents of the change say it will “make it even more difficult for pain sufferers to have their pain properly diagnosed and treated.” Proponents of the change say “pain is not a vital sign, but more of a symptom, and cannot be measured.”

So far, pain is still the fifth vital sign.

See also: Health Startups Go After 3 Pain Points  

The biggest problem is unrealistic expectations – patients often are told or come to believe they will be pain-free. When they’re not, and their condition becomes chronic, it sows doubt in the mind of both the patient and clinician.

The second biggest problem is that often the circumstances beyond their physical pain is ignored. I am convinced that dealing with what happens between the ears and at home is as important as what is physically wrong with the body (i.e. the biopsychosocial model).

So how is “pain as the fifth vital sign” measured? Sometimes it’s a scale of frowny face to smiley face. But often it’s a comparative pain scale, from 0 to 10. The Health Organization for Pudendal Education (HOPE) offers the best description:

  • 0 – No pain – Feeling perfectly normal.
  • 1 – Very mild – Barely noticeable pain, like a mosquito bite or a poison ivy itch. Most of the time, you never think about the pain.
  • 2 – Discomforting – Minor pain, like lightly pinching the fold of skin between the thumb and first finger with the other hand, using the fingernails. Note that people react differently to this self-test.
  • 3 – Tolerable – Very noticeable pain, like an accidental cut, a blow to the nose causing a bloody nose or a doctor giving you an injection. The pain is not so strong that you cannot get used to it. Eventually, most of the time you don’t notice the pain. You have adapted to it.
  • 4 – Distressing – Strong, deep pain, like an average toothache, the initial pain from a bee sting, or minor trauma to part of the body, such as stubbing your toe really hard. So strong you notice the pain all the time and cannot completely adapt. This pain level can be simulated by pinching the fold of skin between the thumb and first finger with the other hand, using the fingernails and squeezing hard. Note how the simulated pain is initially piercing but becomes dull after that.
  • 5 – Very distressing – Strong, deep, piercing pain, such as a sprained ankle when you stand on it wrong, or mild back pain. Not only do you notice the pain all the time, you are now so preoccupied with managing it that your normal lifestyle is curtailed. Temporary personality disorders are frequent.
  • 6 – Intense – Piercing pain so strong it seems to partially dominate your senses, causing you to think somewhat unclearly. At this point, you begin to have trouble holding a job or maintaining normal social relationships. Comparable to a bad non-migraine headache combined with several bee stings, or a bad back pain.
  • 7 – Very intense – Same as 6 except the pain completely dominates your senses, causing you to think unclearly about half the time. At this point, you are effectively disabled and frequently cannot live alone. Comparable to an average migraine headache.
  • 8 – Utterly horrible – Pain so intense you can no longer think clearly at all, and have often undergone severe personality change if the pain has been present for a long time. Suicide is frequently contemplated and sometimes tried. Comparable to childbirth or a really bad migraine headache.
  • 9 – Excruciating, unbearable – Pain so intense you cannot tolerate it and demand pain killers or surgery, no matter what the side effects or risk. If this doesn’t work, suicide is frequent because there is no more joy in life whatsoever. Comparable to throat cancer.
  • 10 – Unimaginable, unspeakable – Pain so intense you will go unconscious shortly. Most people have never experienced this level of pain. Those who have suffered a severe accident, such as a crushed hand, and lost consciousness as a result of the pain and not blood loss have experienced level 10.

How many times have people said their pain is a 9 or 10 (or a 47) when they’re conscious, sitting upright and drove themselves to the doctor’s office? I have seen that manifold times in hundreds of chronic pain workers’ comp claims since 2003. But it’s easy to succumb to that kind of self-assessment …

I had the flu in February and went to a CVS Minute Clinic. One of the initial questions the nurse practitioner asked me (having been prompted to do so by her practice management software) was my level of pain. I truly felt miserable — body aches, high temperature, sneezing. For a brief moment, because I wanted to ensure a prescription of Tamiflu, I wanted to catastrophize (“an irrational thought a lot of us have in believing that something is far worse than it actually is“) and say I was a 9 or 10. But then I remembered all the times I had argued against that approach. And I remembered exactly what a 9 or 10 meant. So I resisted the urge and gave myself a 5 rating. I still got the Tamiflu that started the journey to recovery.

See also: Better Outcomes for Chronic Pain  

Pain is complicated and individual, so there is not a single answer for quantifying and treating it appropriately. However, I have three high-level suggestions:

  • Re-calibrate the scale. The clinician should educate patients on the true meaning of 0 through 10 and help them decide on a lower number that better describes their pain. That would require an actual dialogue between the clinician and patient. I understand that pain is unique and personal. But if patients can convince themselves their pain is a 6 instead of a 10 (or a 47), then managing it seems much more achievable.
  • Be honest. If there is going to be residual, chronic pain, the patient should know it. And own it.
  • Manage the pain. In my opinion, “pain management” is a term that is often misused. You can’t manage your pain if you’re comatose (i.e. sedated on opioids, benzos, muscle relaxants, et al.). Yet we often see “pain management” as a series of pills or injections that are passive and repetitive (in some cases, I think pain management clinics have become “addicted” to the repeat office visits). At some point, patients need to manage their pain rather than allowing the pain to manage them, and be taught how to do that. That could mean yoga, an active lifestyle, better nutrition, biofeedback, proper sleep hygiene, deep breathing exercises, mindfulness, volunteer work or any number of other methods in combination or isolation that work for the patient. The key is an internal locus of control (“he or she can influence events and their outcomes“).

I’m not saying pain isn’t real. For those dealing with chronic pain, it is very real. But I’ve chatted with and observed too many people with significant chronic pain who overcome it on a daily basis to live productive and happy lives. I know that chronic pain does not have to win. Instead, we need to re-define pain, re-define suffering and help people take back control of their lives.

I will finish with this wisdom from Dr. Stephen Grinstead:

  • Thoughts cause feelings
  • Thoughts + feelings = urges
  • Urges + decisions (choices) = actions
  • Actions cause reactions
  • Reactions could help or hurt management of pain

In other words, how you think about pain influences how much power pain has over you. So think differently.

The Best of Claims, the Worst of Claims

It was the best of claims; it was the worst of claims… the age of wisdom, the age of foolishness… belief vs. incredulity… hope vs. despair… etc., etc. The iconic opening paragraph from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities makes one realize such conflicts do exist in the same space and time, albeit through different personal perspectives. Such is the reality in workers’ comp claims, where the single biggest factor in outcome is often the claimant’s attitude.

A client claim-audit project offers a jarring comparison between two claim files from different parts of the country. The claims exemplify how little control we actually have over an employee’s attitude in the disability management process, and show how vastly different the human tolls can be.

Both claims were in excess of 10 years old. Both involved exaggerated and evolving symptoms with eventual narcotic prescriptions for “pain management.” At approximately the same time, however, each took a different path.

One claimant found her own reasons and will-power to end the years she spent on prescribed pain-killers. She entered a drug treatment process on her own, eventually stopped her prescriptions and found a full-time job. The other claimant dove deeper into narcotic addiction and exhibited classic drug seeking behavior – such as “losing” his prescriptions and requiring early refills. He tested positive for other illegal drugs once his rightfully suspicious physician initiated a monitoring program.

There was no appreciably different set of claim management tools or tactics used for the claims – the stark difference in outcome came down to the want of the individual… an almost impossible aspect for the day-to-day claim practitioner or human-resources manager to reach or control. And, at the time of my audit, the claims were equally easy to close.

The woman free of prescriptions and carrying a full-time job was simply no longer a claimant. She was probably very happy to have her case closed and the dark chapter of her life over. We decided on an administrative closure of the claim.

On the other hand, the gentleman was barred from his erstwhile treating physician and pain management clinic for abusing meds and refusing a drug treatment program. A host of independent medical opinions indicated the man did not require further meds for the old injury. His everyday behavior was highly unfocused and erratic, apparently causing no attorney to take his WC case. He lived out of a tent in a relative’s backyard.

The man’s claim was also an easy administrative closure because of lack of any foreseeable prosecution. I have to admit his situation nicked at my coat of cynicism, the one layered thick from years in this profession. I hated the plain fact that he was a doomed victim of a WC system enabling his addictive conditions.

To my good readers, I ask: Which closure would you rather preside over?

Quick-Tip: Know When to Hold ‘Em But Don’t Wait to Fold ‘Em

Concept:

When reasonable medical treatment has no impact, quickly consider other options. A claimant with misguided intentions or extraneous problems and no desire to be “cured” might just be his own worst enemy and using the WC claim as a primary enabler.

Suggestions:

– Find appropriate ways to incorporate employee assistance programs (EAPs) or other specialty counseling services to support employees or WC claimants who have debilitating outlooks or possible addiction issues.

– Maintain a “no-fill” position on narcotic prescriptions. This will give you and your defense team at least an opportunity to block dangerous drugs before they are automatically initiated.

– Consider any “chronic pain” diagnosis to indicate maximum medical improvement (MMI). “Chronic” as a term arguably fits MMI. Try to settle the case under that premise. Fight the diagnosis and treatment plan, as a means to pressure settlement. If the plaintiff’s side argues against an MMI determination, then demand a treatment outlook and timeline that results in stopping pain medication.

– For claims with long-term narcotic situations, seek peer reviews to ascertain if the regimes are excessive and if a recommendation for detoxification is appropriate. Specifically set up medical evaluations to confirm addiction and substance abuse tendencies.

– Never presume a claimant with the wrong attitude and bleak outlook will be cured by any type of treatment. Know when you are wasting time and money. You must sense and act on this early. Don’t rely on adjusters to raise questions, as their inclination is to keep treating as long as medical opinion approves. You must take the role of disruptor.

Bottom line” It is distressing that workers’ comp enables addiction. Closing such cases is not always pretty. Learn from the disasters and take more responsibility in the future. Recognize that claimant attitude and outlook are of primary importance, for good or for bad.

Get Unhooked

The Right Way to End Opioid Addiction

Psychosocial issues can influence chronic pain just as much as the biologic damage from an injury. Job or financial concerns, depression and anxiety, feelings of helplessness, family problems, enabling environments, substance abuse,and past physical or sexual abuse top the list of factors contributing to extended disability. Yet, workers’ compensation has traditionally downplayed psychosocial impacts on the claimant’s motivation to get better and focused instead on “medicalizing” treatment through physician visits, surgery, chiropractic care, a round of physical therapy and especially drugs that, ironically, often make the situation worse.

About 19% of the medical cost of a workers’ compensation claim goes to pharmacy, and a disproportionate amount of those drugs—between 21% and 34%—are opioids. Although neither the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) nor any other treatment guideline recommends opioids for long-term chronic pain, 55% to 86% of claimants are taking them just for that, according to the white paper “Opioids Wreak Havoc on Workers’ Compensation Costs,” published by Keith E. Rosenblum in August 2012.

Its research also found that one-third of claimants who start taking opioids are still on them after a year. Studies show that claimants who take opioids longer than 90 days are not likely to return to work. Patients using prescription painkillers for a long time typically suffer side effects, such as opioid-induced constipation, and experience related diseases such as kidney or liver damage from non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.

There also are side effects from the medications prescribed to combat the side effects of the original prescriptions (for example, Nuvigil often is prescribed to wake patients from over-sedation). Ironically, opioids themselves can create an increased sensitivity to pain (hyperalgesia), thereby feeding the exact problem they are designed to solve. There needs to be a better way.

Behavioral Therapy

All patients bring psychological baggage—both good and bad—to their workers’ compensation injuries. Self-motivation, discipline, self-esteem, a sense of entitlement or victimhood, addictive behaviors and a true desire to get better are factors in recovery.

Some claimants recover and return to work with medical treatment alone; many do not. Claims with unaddressed psychosocial issues are the ones that go off the tracks, drag on for years and pile up costs. In workers’ compensation, “psych” is a four-letter word, but, unless you consider it in the treatment plan, the chances of full restoration are reduced.

Workers’ compensation is just beginning to venture into the psychosocial realm with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to address opioid addiction. CBT’s use is fairly new because of the deep-seated, industry-wide phobia of owning a psych claim. Payers fear never-ending psychiatrist visits and a new set of drugs and costs likely to accompany a psych diagnosis.

However, CBT is not the same as traditional psychotherapy. It is a psychotherapeutic treatment tool that does not produce an additional diagnosis. Plus, CBT is surprisingly affordable. Provided in-person or telephonically—both requiring extensive “homework”—it is usually limited to eight to 12 visits at $100 to $150 per visit. In many cases, a payer’s total investment in CBT is less than the claim’s monthly drug spending.

The science and success of CBT are still evolving, but some studies and anecdotal outcomes show that it is a helpful tool, both in workers’ compensation and the healthcare industry in general. The focus is on patients who seem stuck in their treatment plans. CBT works on the concept that a person’s thoughts are the primary cause of that individual’s behaviors and feelings. Thought patterns—not circumstances, events or other people—dictate the individual’s motivation and sense of well-being.

A psychologist or other therapist asks questions and poses statements to help patients open up and self-identify the psychological elements standing in the way of their recovery. In that way, CBT gets to the root of motivation issues. Some claimants hate their jobs or bosses and consciously or subconsciously resist returning to work.

Family members can be motivation-killers and enablers, as in a case where a claimant took so much Celebrex that he developed cirrhosis of the liver. He and his doctor wanted to reduce his opioid intake, which also was damaging his liver, but his wife resisted. She said he was easier to manage when sedated and had to be convinced that he would die prematurely before she acquiesced.

The belief that “I don’t deserve to feel better” churns the cycle of pain for some. Many pain patients have low self-esteem that stems from any number of factors, including: hyper-critical parents, absent or neglectful parents, past sexual or physical abuse or other traumatic experiences.

The goal of CBT is for the patient to self-identify the issue through prompting by a professional and then correct fundamental errors in thinking, such as victimization, generalization or catastrophizing.

To be clear, CBT does not cure motivation problems. Instead, this “talk therapy” helps patients identify barriers to recovery and replace negative thoughts with positive, empowering ones.

Functional Restoration

While CBT is provided as a standalone, it also figures prominently in functional restoration programs (FRP), which help patients work through psychosocial issues while detoxifying and participating in physical therapy and other exercise programs that increase their physical activity and capability.

The whole functional restoration process enables individuals to acquire the knowledge and skills to make the behavioral changes needed to take primary responsibility for their own physical and emotional well-being after an injury. The ultimate goals of FRP and CBT are to implement lifestyle changes that will last a lifetime and manage pain.

A functional restoration clinic should be multidisciplinary, preferably with an addictionology, orthopedic or pain management and rehabilitation (PM&R) specialty, a psychologist and licensed physical therapist acting as a team to customize and coordinate treatment for the patient. Other treatments such as yoga, chiropractic and biofeedback also can be included, along with services like vocational counseling. The best programs involve between 120 and 160 total hours of therapy.

An initial assessment should predict the person’s anticipated compliance, and the better functional restoration clinics have high denial rates (50% or more). Applicants may not be in good enough health, or they may lack the motivation to change. There’s no point in spending $30,000 on a program if the claimant refuses to work or accept responsibility for his health and outcomes. A pre-emptive CBT program can help weed out unmotivated patients.

Vital signs and physical capabilities need to be measured and objectively managed, and a baseline should be taken upon admission, followed by daily to weekly measurements and adjustments. Following patients upon discharge is just as important. Best practices show one year of follow-up, by telephone or in-person, achieves the best results in cementing lifelong change. Without consistent encouragement and personal instruction, claimants may relapse and turn back to drugs.

When selecting an FRP, access to an inpatient program or a strong alliance with a hospital or other inpatient detox facility can be critical. It cannot be overstated how vital the appropriate venue for detoxification is to overall success. Often, the treating physician who prescribed the drug cocktail in the first place is ill-equipped to develop a discontinuance strategy or provide the clinical oversight needed to wean patients off the drugs. Initial inpatient care may be needed if respiratory depression or cardiac issues could significantly complicate the weaning process.

Power of Yoga

Many functional restoration programs offer yoga, an interesting combination of physical and mental/emotional exercise. Studies show that it improves flexibility, strength and balance on the physical side. Its focus on “centering” helps participants calm their minds and relax their bodies, relieving pain and giving them an empowering sense of control.

An Austin, Texas, clinic saw such a positive response to its once-a-week yoga class that it expanded it to five days a week. Not only was patient satisfaction high, but overall functional outcomes improved. Patients say it helps them cope with pain, improves flexibility and increases their functionality, and they plan to make it a permanent part of their lifestyle. Yoga by itself is typically not sufficient, but incorporating it into the multidisciplinary functional restoration strategy can yield very positive results.

A holistic pain management approach can get runaway claims back on track. Weaning a claimant off an opioid-laden cocktail, which often does much more harm than good, is a great thing. Stopping the financial losses on a claim is a great thing. Returning a clear-headed, self-directed employee to work is a great thing.

Adjusting Mindsets

The focus of workers’ compensation, when it was originally created more than 100 years ago, was to return an injured worker to health and function and work as quickly as possible. Historically, it has been an insurance function; after all, workers’ compensation is part of the property/casualty industry. However, over time, workers’ compensation became part of the healthcare industry because restoring function and health is entirely related to the competency of the clinical and psychological strategies employed.

As evidence mounts that patient motivation is vital to actual recovery, it’s time for another transition from a “medicalization-only” mindset to a holistic approach that takes into account all the variables that affect recovery. It’s time for all stakeholders within the system to think more broadly and be open to new concepts that comply with best practices and correspond with treatment guidelines.

In other words, maybe the injured workers are not the only ones who need to have their motivations adjusted.

 

SIDEBAR

Prevention Is Key

Keep claims from going off track in the first place by having treating physicians conduct risk management before prescribing opioids. Some questions include:

  • Has there been past substance abuse?
  • Is the patient receiving narcotics from other physicians?
  • How many other physicians are prescribing medications?
  • Is there depression or anxiety involved?
  • Did the claimant experience sexual or physical abuse (a prime predictor of addictive behavior)?
  • Will the patient submit to random urine drug tests?

Additionally, there are a number of screening tools to identify potential drug dependency and addiction. Some examples include:

  • For prior substance abuse: Diagnostic Criteria for Substance Dependence – DSM-IV from the American Psychiatric Association
  • For potential addiction/dependence issues: Opioid Risk Tool (ORT) or Screener and Opioid Assessment for Patients with Pain  (SOAPP)
  • For depression: Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ-9)
  • For general psychological analysis: Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI)

Unfortunately, most payers do not have a mechanism for reimbursing physicians for conducting a detailed risk analysis. This needs to change. Payers could assign a CPT code for physicians to use to conduct a thorough risk analysis. Spending a few hundred dollars up front can save hundreds of thousands of dollars on a long-term, opioid-laden claim. The assessment would also shed light on the physician’s capabilities to manage a chronic pain situation.