Response to a Petition Against the NICE guidelines

Okay so I’m going to acknowledge that this blog post might be a little divisive. But if I look around at our society right now, most issues regarding health are. This is probably more of an opinion piece than many of my posts, which I do research (yes, I read scientific journal articles to make sure I get the facts as straight as possible for all of you). I did a post (and a podcast episode) about the guidelines that came from NICE in the UK regarding the treatment of chronic pain awhile back. These guidelines were controversial within the medical community itself because, well, they recommend against the use of pain medications due to a lack of evidence that they are effective AND that many of them can be addictive. Doctors, of course, like to prescribe medications.

The recommendations for the treatment were: (1) exercise, (2) acupuncture, (3) cognitive behavioural therapy, (4) acceptance and commitment therapy, and (5) anti-depressants. I recently saw a post on Instagram that linked a petition against these guidelines. The reasoning behind the petition was that it makes it harder for people to get the treatment (i.e., medications) that they need to manage their chronic pain. Much like doctors, most patients also feel like medications are the way to go (which is a fairly western version of pain management – check out the podcast episode with Dr. Richard Harris for an East meets West version of pain management that tends to work better). Now, I’m not saying that pain medication doesn’t work for anyone ever. And I don’t think that’s what they guidelines are saying either. They are saying that the evidence-base isn’t strong for most of those medications, but it is strong for these alternative treatments. The other argument in the petition is that the alternative treatments are expensive and not covered by insurance. I’m going to break each of these arguments down a bit further.

Me during a hike this summer.

So first, whether or not people will still be able to access pain medications. Regardless of these guidelines I find it very hard to believe that most Western doctors will stop prescribing pain medications. Like I mentioned earlier, most doctors were upset by the guidelines in the first place. Also, doctors are trained to prescribe medications, they aren’t trained (literally almost no training) on prescribing alternative treatments. It’s more than likely they’ll go with what they know. They might though be more willing to recommend alternatives as adjunct treatments. This is actually what my rheumatologist did. She recommended that in addition to the medications she prescribed, I seek out alternative treatments such as physiotherapy and naturopathy (and I did and they were helpful). I get why people are upset about the guidelines, especially if they mostly rely on medications. The guidelines do state that for some conditions (mostly CRPS) pain medications do work best (it’s best just to read all the guidelines – AND all the hyperlinks that give fuller explanations yourself – available here).

The second point that alternative treatments are expensive, is true and not true at the same time. Exercise is technically free. I exercise at home – both cardio (walking) and strength training (body weight) and have spent $0 on it since the pandemic started (I did go to the gym before that). But a lot of people with chronic pain are hesitant about exercising (check out the podcast episode with Dr. Frank Nahn). Acupuncture can be a bit pricey depending on where you live, but it is sometimes covered by insurance. I had insurance through work that covered my naturopath, who did acupuncture, for up to $500 a year. That’s about 6 sessions. I’m not saying it’s always covered, but it might be. CBT and ACT, the two psychotherapies listed are along the same lines as acupuncture. They might be covered or they might not be. In the province (Canada) that I live, it is covered up to a certain amount by provincial insurance, or short-term therapy is also covered by the provincial government. There are also self-help versions of these available at bookstores and online. Finally, anti-depressants, again may be covered by extended health insurance if you have that. Also, wouldn’t a better petition to be to try and get governments (or insurance companies) to cover these services for chronic pain and chronic illness patients? Just a suggestion…

As a therapist who went into the field to help people with chronic pain and illness (and their co-occurring mental health issues I decided to primarily use ACT with my clients due to its large evidence base).

I guess what I’m saying is that if you dislike the guidelines because you only rely on medication but also haven’t tried or even looked into these alternatives, then it makes sense that you’d be upset. I would be too! I started using some of these alternatives (exercise, acupuncture, CBT/ACT) long before these guidelines came out and I saw how much they improved my well-being, well over and beyond what my medication has ever done. I also find it interesting that I often see posted online people complaining that their medications aren’t really helping. It’s easy to have some cognitive dissonance here. We want to believe medications will solve all our problems even when we’re acknowledging that they’re not. I’m doubtful that I’ll change too many minds with this post, but my hope is that we at least get thinking about using both holistic approaches (like in NICE’s guidelines) and are medication together so that we can get the best results.

Okay, that is all for this week. Keep making the most of it everyone!

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How well do our pain medications work?

If you’re anything like me, you may have wondered why pain medications aren’t working well. Aren’t giving the relief we’re told they should. I’ve been taken off NSAIDs because they hurt my stomach – has this happened to you to? I’ve been offered opioids after surgery but decided against it for fear of addiction even though I’ve been in a lot of pain – do you relate? I’ve also tried lowering doses of medications and found they’ve been as effective on a lower dose as they were on a higher one, because I’ve added holistic approaches to pain control – what about you?

Some medications and supplements I’ve been on (and this isn’t even all of them).

There were some interesting recommendations out of the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE) in the UK that came out of a meta-analysis (review of scientific studies) on treatments for pain/pain management. The part of the study and recommendations that really blew my mind what was that not a single pain medication was said to have enough evidence to support its effectiveness for treating chronic primary pain. Now, I will say that they reviewed about 22 studies per type of pain management – each medication and each holistic approach – that they looked at, so not super extensive but definitely enough to be a good indicator. I’m going to do a podcast episode on the 5 suggested treatments (exercise, acupuncture, 2 types of psychotherapy, and anti-depressants) for pain so stay tuned to the podcast for that episode in a few weeks. On the blog this week, I thought we’d talk about what they said about all these pain meds that we take!

NICE didn’t comment on CBD/Medical Marijuana, other than to say they didn’t really review the research in this area.

Opioids – I know that these are commonly prescribed, and as a mental health professional, I also know that there is an opioid crisis in North America (that being said, just because you take opioids does not mean you’ll become addicted as we need to look at other biopsychosocial factors). NICE states that there is not enough evidence that shows long-term opioid use actually helps with chronic pain, plus they note the risk of addiction (for some people) in the short- and long-term. Conclusion: Maybe not a good idea.

Benzodiazapines and NSAIDs – also commonly prescribed, and as I said, I used to be on strong NSAIDs that hurt my stomach, now I have a less strong one that I’m to take “as needed.” Benzos were cautioned as not being effective for chronic pain, AND leading to poorer functioning. And NSAIDs, these were said to also not improve pain, distress, or quality of life and increase the risk of gastrointestinal bleeding. Conclusion: Maybe not a good idea either.

Antiepileptics (Gabapentinoids) and Pregablin – these are only shown to be effective for neuropathic pain and CRPS. However, NICE cautions that they can be highly dependent and are known to be addictive. Again, one needs to consider biopsychosocial factors, but if you have other risk factors for addiction, possibly not a good choice. Conclusion: Depends on your condition and your risk factors for substance misuse.

Local anaethetics – Short-term use indicates they may actually make things worse, except for CRPS. So again, this might come down to your specific diagnosis. Luckily there was nothing mentioned about them becoming addiction. Conclusion: A go for CRPS but not anything else.

Paracetamol, ketamine, corticosteroids, anaesthetic/corticosteroid combinations and antipsychotics – again there is insufficient evidence for all of these, and NICE cautions that harm could actually come from taking these, though they don’t specify what the harm is. Conclusion: Maybe not a good idea.

I find it best when I combine holistic approaches, like exercise, with Western medicine, like pain meds.

So, what have I done to supplement lowering my pain medications (which may not be that effective anyway) so that I can continue to have better quality of life and well-being? A lot of the recommendations made by NICE and some others. I exercise daily (any movement is good movement if you’re starting out), I eat healthy, I use approaches such as acupuncture, chiropractor, physiotherapy, mindfulness, etc., and I have been to psychotherapy (and I currently use psychotherapy to help others). You can check out NICE’s study here. ALWAYS, check with your physician and healthcare team before changing medications or doses or adding holistic care to your plan. I started by adding holistic approaches first, and then cut back on meds. We are each unique individuals and this information is for psychoeducation/health education purposes only.

This week’s podcast episode is on nutrition for chronic illness – check it out: Apple, Spotify, Web.
Everyone, keep making the most of it!

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