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Pain Management And Why It’s So Personal

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Most of my patients think about pain medicines in terms of the symptoms they treat. “This is my headache medicine, and this is my arthritis medicine,” they often say. Healthcare providers are more likely to categorize pain medicines by the way they work: some are anti-inflammatory, some affect nerve endings, and others influence how the brain perceives pain. But the truth is that no matter how you classify pain medicines, there is no way to know if they’ll help until you try them for yourself.

Most people don’t realize that pain management is personal. Research is beginning to help us understand why people respond to medicines so differently, and one day we will probably be able to personalize treatment plans more successfully. For now, there are several known genetic reasons why pain medicines are more or less effective for one individual over another. Genes affect:

  1. The number of enzymes that break down medicines and remove them from the body. Some people have larger numbers of these enzymes and therefore require more drug to feel its pain-relieving effects. Others may be strongly affected by even small doses of drug.

  2. Pain medicine receptor variations can make one medicine effective and another (nearly identical medicine) ineffective in relieving pain.

  3. Differences in carrier molecules that transport pain medicine across the blood stream and into the cells that are triggering pain sensations. Some people have fewer carrier molecules to bring the medicine to the site of pain.

  4. The number of “middle man” neurotransmitter molecules that pass along the pain response. Too many of these molecules can reduce drug binding and mute the pain relief effects of some drugs.

When pain is severe, prescription medications may be necessary. However, mild to moderate pain may be effectively managed with over-the-counter (OTC) medicines. I believe in the start low, go slow approach to finding the smallest effective dose of pain medicines. I always recommend that my patients read and follow all the instructions on the Drug Facts labels to make sure that they don’t accidentally overdose on active ingredients.

When I choose a pain reliever with my patients, the first thing I think about is potential side effects. Some medicines (such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen and naproxen sodium) can be hard on the stomach lining, or cause bleeding in people who are at risk for it. Other medicines (such as acetaminophen) can harm the liver if used in excess, while prescription pain medicines can cause constipation and drowsiness. The best pain medicine to start with is one that is least likely to cause harm to the specific person.

The next thing I ask is whether or not the medicine has worked for the patient in the past. Previous experience is one of the best indicators of future success. Since I know that my patient has a unique, genetically determined number of enzymes, transporters, and receptors, previous experience with pain medicines will give me a good idea of how well they will tolerate it again, and if it will be effective.

Finally, I consider the type of pain that they are experiencing. If the pain is caused by inflammation (from an injury, surgery, or arthritis) I’ll consider a medicine with primarily anti-inflammatory properties. If the pain is caused by tension (such has headache) or complicated by fever, I may consider acetaminophen first. If the pain is coming from a nerve (such as sciatica or neuropathy) then I’ll use pain medicines that work for nerve pain specifically. If the pain is complicated by depression, I may discuss additional medicines and approaches.

Sometimes, combinations of medicines are significantly more effective than one medicine alone at treating pain (this is why some prescription pain relievers are combinations of an opioid and acetaminophen). When using more than one pain relief medicine, it is important to compare active ingredients in both prescription medications and OTC products to make sure that accidental overdoses do not occur. I also recommend consulting with a healthcare professional if there are concerns about drug interactions or if the patient is already on a significant number of prescription medications that could interact with his or her OTC pain medicine choices.

The bottom line is that science is still catching up to pain management. Perhaps one day a simple blood test will help us to determine the very best pain medicine regimen for a specific patient at a given time. But until then, adopting a strategy of careful trial and error (avoiding unwanted side effects, using the lowest effective doses, and consulting a physician when pain is severe) is the only option. Don’t worry too much about whether a specific medicine is “best” for your pain. Pain management is very personal, so you will need to discover your own best solution.


Disclosure: Dr. Val Jones is a paid consultant for McNeil Consumer Healthcare Division.

When In Doubt, Ask A Family Member

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Photo Cred: Max S. Gerber

I learned a valuable lesson recently about how difficult it can be to make the correct diagnosis when you see a patient for a very short period of time. In the acute rehab setting I admit patients who are recovering from severe, life-altering brain events such as strokes, head injuries, and complex medical illnesses. It is challenging to know what these patients’ usual mental function was prior to their injuries, and so I rely on my knowledge of neuroanatomy, infectious disease, and pharmacology to guide my work up. However, I have learned that asking the patient’s family members about what they were like (in their healthier state) is extremely important as well. Personality quirks, likes and dislikes, and psychiatric history all offer clues to ongoing behavioral challenges and mental status changes.

This fact was never clearer than when I met an elderly gentleman with a new stroke. He was extremely drowsy, non-participatory, and was not oriented to anything but his name. The stroke had occurred in a part of the brain that does not affect cognition, so I began to wonder if he had an infection or was having a reaction to a medication. I carefully ruled out all possible sources of infection, and I combed through his medication list and removed any potentially sedating drugs. His mental status remained unchanged for several days. I then began to wonder if perhaps he was suffering from significant dementia at baseline, and that he was living at home with more help from his family than they had initially reported. The therapy team and I began to consider a transfer to a nursing home. The family was horrified by the idea.

As it turned out, his grandson shared with me that he believed that the patient was autistic. Because his grandpa was elderly, he grew up in a time where not much was known about autism, and diagnoses of the condition was rarely made. He was therefore never formally diagnosed, but had many of the textbook characteristics. His stroke, combined with a sudden transfer to an inpatient hospital setting, was very distressing for the patient, and he had shut down to protect himself from the mental anguish. The “dementia-like” behavior that we were witnessing was merely an acute psychological reaction.

Armed with this new information, the therapy team requested family members to be present during all sessions – to encourage participation and to provide comfort and normalization of the transition from home to hospital. The patient responded beautifully, and made remarkable gains in his ability to walk and participate in self care activities.

I apologized profusely to the family for our period of confusion about his diagnosis and care needs, and offered reassurance that we would do our very best to help him recover from his stroke so that he could go home directly from the hospital. He did in fact return home, and with a little extra help from his daughters, he is enjoying his usual projects and activities.

As for me, I will never presume dementia without careful family confirmation again.

The Costs, And Maybe Cost Savings, Of Medication Non-Adherence

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A Cat Playing Whack-A-Mole

Medication non-adherence is a hot button topic in healthcare. Physicians lament patient “non-compliance” with their medical advice, and policy wonks tell us that more than half of patients do not take their medications as directed. Missed opportunities to control chronic illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer surely do cost us untold billions of dollars and millions of quality life years lost annually in the U.S. But there is a flip side to the equation that no one is talking about. The costs of polypharmacy (over medication).

In my opinion, many Americans, especially those over 65, are taking far too many medicines. The unwanted side effects and medication interactions (both known and unknown) can be devastating. In my line of work (inpatient rehabilitation) I receive a steady stream of patients who have fallen and injured themselves or have been involved in serious accidents. An astonishing number of these incidents are related to drug side effects.

Take, for example, the elderly woman who had mild hypertension. Unbeknownst to her physicians, she was not compliant with the diuretics she had been prescribed. Each successive visit it was presumed that she was taking her medicines as directed, and that they were not sufficient to control her blood pressure. So the dosing was increased. Her husband dutifully picked up the new prescriptions from the pharmacy, and she collected them (unopened) in her desk drawer.

One day this spirited lady caught pneumonia and required a couple of days of inpatient monitoring and antibiotics at the local hospital. Her son decided to assist with her transition back home and stayed with her for a week, taking on both cooking and medication administration duty from his dad. He found all of her pills in her desk drawer and began to give them to her as directed.

Several days later the distraught son told me that his mother’s health had taken a nose-dive, and that she was hallucinating and acting uncharacteristically hostile. He took her to a more distant specialty hospital, where their initial impression was that she had advanced dementia, which had probably gone unnoticed by a son who hadn’t lived nearby for years. She would benefit from hospice placement.

The reality was, of course, that this poor woman was as dehydrated as a raisin and was becoming delirious from excessive diuretic use. Once I figured out that her son’s sudden, and very well-intentioned, medication adherence program was to blame, we stopped the blood pressure medications, gave her some water and she returned to her usual self within 24 hours.

On another occasion, I admitted a closed-head injury patient who had lost her front teeth after fainting and falling head first onto the asphalt in a grocery store parking lot. This was her third head injury in 6 months. A review of her medications revealed no less than six medications (that she was dutifully taking for various diseases and conditions) that carried a known side-effect of “dizziness.” We were able to discontinue all of them, and to this day I have not heard of another fall.

Just last week a wise, elderly patient of mine declined to take her blood pressure medicine. I explained to her that her blood pressure was higher than we’d like and that I wanted to protect her from strokes with the medicines. She smiled kindly at me and said, “I know my body, and I get dizzy when my blood pressure is at the levels you doctors like. The risk of my falling and hurting myself when I’m dizzy is greater than the benefit of avoiding a stroke. I’ve been running at this blood pressure for 80 years. Let’s leave it be.”

What I’ve learned is that although there are costs to not taking medicines, there are costs to taking them too. It is hard to say how many injuries are accidentally prevented by patient non-adherence. But we all need to take a closer look at what’s in our desk drawers, and pare down the prescriptions to the bare minimum required. I consider it a great victory each time I reduce the number of medications my patients use, and I would urge my peers to join me in the pharmaceutical whack-a-mole game that is so sorely needed in this country.


The American Geriatrics Society provides a helpful list of medications that should be avoided whenever possible in older individuals.

Tips For Hospitals: Hiring Locum Tenens Physicians

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This post originally appeared on The Barton Blog.

It’s both expensive and time-consuming to obtain temporary coverage for a hospital or medical practice. Locum tenens clients have every right to expect high-quality care from the locum tenens providers they hire; but even the very best locums may not perform to their full potential if their onboarding isn’t carefully planned.

As a locum tenens physician with licenses in 14 states, I have much experience with the onboarding process. Here are 12 tips for facilities eager to encourage smooth transitions, foster good provider relationships, and provide excellent patient care.

1. Arrange for provider sign-outs.

Since lapses in provider communication is a leading cause of medical errors, you can protect your patients by organizing a face-to-face (or phone call) report between the current provider and the locum who is going to be assigned to their census. Studies have shown a 30% decrease in error rate when physicians hand off their patient panel in person.

2. Allow for at least one day of training overlap, if possible.

The incoming provider will adapt best to your unique environment and care process if he or she has the chance to “shadow” the current provider for a day. Various questions will naturally arise and be answered during real-time patient care. In emergency fill situations, this will obviously not be possible; but it will help ease transitions in cases where it can be done.

3. Get your IT ducks in a row before the locum tenens provider arrives.

Electronic medical records (EMR) systems are difficult to master, and attempting to learn how to navigate in a new one (or newer version of one) in the middle of a full patient caseload is a recipe for disaster. Logins and passwords should be set up long before the locum tenens provider arrives. EMR training needs should be discussed and planned for in advance. If an IT professional is available to sit with the locum during his or her first round of documentation attempts, so much the better.

4. Plan for a day or half-day of orientation.

A facility tour, combined with an in-person meeting of key hospital players, is extremely important. The following people should be included:

  • Unit medical director
  • Nursing and therapy supervisors
  • Risk management staff
  • Human resources
  • Medical records staff
  • Coding and billing staff
  • Pharmacy staff
  • Laboratory staff

5. Prepare a welcome packet in advance.

This packet should include important information about the organization, the assignment, and the facility, including:

  • Site maps
  • Parking instructions
  • Orientation day schedule
  • Door key codes (if applicable)
  • ID badge instructions
  • EMR login and password
  • Dictation codes
  • Cafeteria location and hours
  • A hospital directory with key phone numbers highlighted

Make sure the locum knows who signs their time sheets and where their office is located. A coding “cheat sheet” may also be appreciated.

6. Invite the locum tenens provider to lunch or dinner at some point during their assignment.

This is a friendly way to show that you appreciate them, and you want to get to know them. Being on the road can be lonely, and most locums appreciate opportunities to socialize.


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Over-Reliance On Tests: Why Physicians Must Learn To Trust Themselves And Their Patients


I met my newly admitted patient in the quiet of his private room. He was frail, elderly, and coughing up gobs of green phlegm. His nasal cannula had stepped its way across his cheek during his paroxsysms and was pointed at his right eye. Although the room was uncomfortably warm, he was shivering and asking for more blankets. I could hear his chest rattling across the room.

The young hospitalist dutifully ordered a chest X-Ray (which showed nothing of particular interest) and reported to me that the patient was fine as he was afebrile and his radiology studies were unremarkable. He would stop by and check in on him in the morning.

I shook my head in wonderment. One look at this man and you could tell he was teetering on the verge of sepsis, with a dangerous and rather nasty pneumonia on physical exam, complicated by dehydration. I started antibiotics at once, oxygen via face mask, IV fluids and drew labs to follow his white count and renal function. He perked up nicely as we averted catastrophe overnight. By the time the hospitalist arrived the next day, the patient was looking significantly better. The hospitalist left a note in the EMR about a chest cold and zipped off to see his other new consults.

Similar scenarios have played out in countless cases that I’ve encountered. Take, for example, the man whose MRI was “normal” but who had new onset hemiparesis, ataxia, and sensory loss on physical exam… The team assumed that because the MRI did not show a stroke, the patient must not have had one. He was treated for a series of dubious alternative diagnoses, became delirious on medications, and was reassessed only when a family member put her foot down about his ability to go home without being able to walk. A later MRI showed the stroke.

A woman with gastrointestinal complaints was sent to a psychiatrist for evaluation after a colonoscopy and endoscopy were normal. After further blood tests were unremarkable, she was provided counseling and an anti-depressant. A year later, a rare metastatic cancer was discovered on liver ultrasound.

Physicians have access to an ever-growing array of tests and studies, but they often forget that the results may be less sensitive or specific than their own eyes and ears. And when the two are in conflict (i.e. the patient looks terrible but the test is normal), they often default to trusting the tests.

My plea to physicians is this: Listen to your patients, trust what they are saying, then verify their complaints with your own exam, and use labs and imaging sparingly to confirm or rule out your diagnosis. Understand the limitations of each study, and do not dismiss patient complaints too easily. Keep probing and asking questions. Learn more about their concerns – open your mind to the possibility that they are on to something. Do not blame the patient because your tests aren’t picking up their problem.

And above all else – trust yourself.  If a patient doesn’t look well – obey your instincts and do not walk away because the tests are “reassuring.” Cancer, strokes, and infections will get their dirty tendrils all over your patient before that follow up study catches them red handed. And by then, it could be too late.

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