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Chronic Opioid Therapy Guidelines Offer Direction for Physicians

Posted: February 27, 2009

While patients are rightfully concerned about not receiving adequate pain relief, physicians harbor fears about drug abuse, safety issues, and government oversight. New clinical guidelines for the use of chronic opioid therapy in chronic non-cancer pain patients, developed by consensus of the American Pain Society and the American Academy of Pain Medicine, may ease both patient and physician concerns.

The guidelines, published in the February issue of the Journal of Pain, offer a roadmap for physicians on how to safely prescribe opioids to patients with moderate to severe pain.* The authors specifically state that their report applies to patients with "chronic non-cancer pain conditions, including common conditions such as back pain, osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia, and headache."

Throughout the guidelines, physicians are urged to evaluate their patients' pain and function on a regular basis. And, if doctors are worried that a patient is abusing or misusing the prescribed opioid, they may need to reduce the time between scheduled office visits. In addition, physicians are encouraged to look at all of the available options for treating patients' chronic pain, including the use of opioids, and it is emphasized that this class of medications will seldom provide sufficient pain control. This means that patients placed on opioids will likely need to be prescribed medications from other drug classes as well as non-drug therapies. And, physicians who do not have the skill-set to prescribe opioids need to coordinate their patients' care with another doctor who is experienced in providing this therapy.

The American Pain Society emphasized the following three points to all its members this month:

The message is clear that under most circumstances, there are reasonable ways for physicians to prescribe chronic opioid therapy for their patients in pain while emphasizing safety issues and minimizing side effects or the potential for drug misuse. The guidelines offer physicians 25 recommendations with detailed explanations on how to follow them—all to help doctors prescribe opioids to their chronic pain patients in a responsible fashion. In addition to the key points already made, here are other highlights from the published guidelines:

The opioid guidelines give your doctor the "how to" advice for prescribing opioids, including sample copies of patient screening questionnaires, a consent form, management plan, and full details on how to responsibly prescribe opioids. However, they also assume that the prescribing physician is already knowledgeable about issues concerning this class of medications (i.e., the guidelines cannot possibly convert a novice into an expert on COT). Neither the patient nor physician should feel awkward about the consent and management forms, or random urine tests. Doctors who follow these guidelines should be better equipped to implement opioid therapies for their chronic pain patients (such as fibromyalgia) in a safe manner.

* Chou R, Fanciullo GJ, Fine PG, et al. J Pain 10(2):113-130, 2009.

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