Any treatment for pain should periodically be reviewed and evaluated by the clinician. New information about the patient’s state of health, condition or cause of pain, psychosocial and mental health, and nature of pain is noted. The clinician should look at the patient’s dosage, the medication schedule (to determine if the patient is indeed taking the prescription as directed) and whether the current treatment should be continued or modified. This decision depends on evaluation of the progress toward the treatment objectives previously outlined in the plan of care. At such a review, it is critical to reinforce correct medication usage.
Guidelines for Prescribing Opioids
- Nonpharmacologic therapy and nonopioid pharmacologic therapy are preferred for chronic pain. Clinicians should consider opioid therapy only if expected benefits for both pain and function are anticipated to outweigh risks to the patient.
- Clinicians should establish treatment goals with all patients, including realistic goals for pain and function, and should consider how opioid therapy will be discontinued if benefits do not outweigh risks.
- Before starting (and periodically during opioid therapy), clinicians should discuss with patients known risks and realistic benefits of opioid therapy and patient and clinician responsibilities for managing therapy.
- Clinicians should prescribe immediate-release opioids instead of extended-release/long-acting (ER/LA) opioids.
- Before starting (and periodically during continuation of opioid therapy), clinicians should evaluate risk factors for opioid-related harms. They should incorporate into the management plan strategies to mitigate risk, including considering the offer of naloxone in the presence of factors that increase risk for opioid overdose, such as history of overdose, history of substance use disorder, higher opioid dosages (≥50 MME/day), or concurrent benzodiazepine use. (CDC, 2017b)
“Because organized medicine basically caused this problem, it’s really going to take organized medicine to reverse it,” said Gary Franklin, University of Washington (Solis, 2014).
Regular monitoring and ongoing assessment is essential to determine if the treatment plan is on track and the patient is achieving results. Clinicians should incorporate the following practices in their patient monitoring:
- Clinicians should continue opioid therapy only if there is clinically meaningful improvement in pain and function that outweighs risks to patient safety.
- Clinicians should prescribe the lowest effective dosage. They should use caution when prescribing opioids at any dosage, should carefully reassess evidence of individual benefits and risks when considering increasing dosage to ≥50 morphine milligram equivalents (MME)/day, and should avoid increasing dosage to ≥90 MME/day or carefully justify a decision to titrate dosage to ≥90 MME/day.
- Long-term opioid use often begins with treatment of acute pain. When opioids are Clinicians should review the patient’s history of controlled substance prescriptions using state prescription drug monitoring program (PDMP) data to determine whether the patient is receiving opioid dosages or dangerous combinations that put him or her at high risk for overdose. Clinicians should review PDMP data when starting opioid therapy for chronic pain and periodically during opioid therapy for chronic pain, ranging from every prescription to every 3 months.
- When prescribing opioids for chronic pain, clinicians should use urine drug testing before starting opioid therapy and consider urine drug testing at least annually to assess for prescribed medications as well as other controlled prescription drugs and illicit drugs.
- Clinicians should avoid prescribing opioid pain medication and benzodiazepines concurrently whenever possible. Clinicians should offer or arrange evidence-based treatment (usually medication-assisted treatment with buprenorphine or methadone in combination with behavioral therapies) for patients with opioid use disorder. (CDC, 2017b)
- used for acute pain, clinicians should prescribe the lowest effective dose of immediate-release opioids and should prescribe no greater quantity than needed for the expected duration of pain severe enough to require opioids. Three days or less will often be sufficient; more than seven days will rarely be needed.
- Clinicians should evaluate benefits and harms with patients within 1 to 4 weeks of starting opioid therapy for chronic pain or of dose escalation. They should evaluate benefits and harms of continued therapy with patients every 3 months or more frequently. If benefits do not outweigh harms of continued opioid therapy, clinicians should optimize other therapies and work with patients to taper opioids to lower dosages or to taper and discontinue opioids.
Identifying Diversion and Drug-Seeking Behaviors
The purpose of risk assessment is to determine the likelihood that a patient will develop or display aberrant drug-related behaviors. Healthcare providers must be observant at all times for signs of nonadherance to treatment plans and dosage instructions. Aberrant drug-related behaviors include the following:
- Escalating the dose without a clinician’s order, especially rapidly escalating the dose. Psychoactive tolerance develops quickly, forcing a drug abuser to take more of the medication to achieve the same effect, often in doses significantly higher than a therapeutic dose for pain. In contrast, analgesic tolerance develops slowly. It would be expected that patients with stable pain would stay on the same dose for months or years.
- Taking the drug in larger doses than prescribed and running out of medication early. Patients abusing opioids may aggressively request refills earlier than expected, or request additional doctor visits.
- Acquiring opioids from sources other than by order of the clinician, such as an emergency department, acquiring additional doctors, or buy purchasing the drug on the street.
- Altering or acquiring prescriptions by means of theft, fraud, or purchase.
- Using the drug in any method other than that which was prescribed, such as by snorting, injecting, or chewing oral medications for quicker effect. (NIDA, n.d.)
Spectrum of Aberrant Drug-Taking Behaviors
Steven Passick created this list in 2009 but it remains useful today.
More suggestive of addiction*
- Concurrent abuse of alcohol or illicit drugs
- Evidence of deterioration in the ability to function at work, in the family, or socially that appears to be related to drug use
- Injecting oral formulations
- Multiple dose escalations or other nonadherence with therapy despite warnings
- Obtaining prescription drugs from nonmedical sources
- Prescription forgery
- Repeated resistance to changes in therapy despite clear evidence of drug-related diverse physical or psychological effects
- Repeatedly seeking prescriptions from other clinicians or emergency departments without informing prescriber
- Selling prescription drugs
- Stealing or borrowing drugs from others
*Documented in patient’s medical chart.
Less suggestive of addiction
- Aggressive complaining about the need for more drugs
- Drug hoarding during periods of reduced symptoms
- Openly acquiring similar drugs from other medical sources
- Requesting specific drugs
- Reporting psychic effects not intended by the clinician
- Resistance to a change in therapy associated with tolerable adverse effects accompanied by expressions of anxiety related to the return of severe symptoms
- Unapproved use of the drug to treat another symptom
- Unsanctioned dose escalation or other nonadherence with therapy on 1 or 2 occasions.
Source: Passik, 2009.
As is evident above, not all aberrant drug-related behaviors by patients signify addiction. They may instead signify that the patient:
- Is experiencing increased pain
- Has accidentally been misusing the medication by taking more than intended
- Is developing a physical tolerance to the opioid analgesic, which is not as effective as it once was
- Is rationing doses to save money, for example, or selling doses for income
- May have someone in his or her household or living situation who is stealing medication from the patient (Corsini & Zacharoff, 2014)
Clinicians should look closely to determine the reason for the unexpected or aberrant behaviors. Such behaviors are important clinical signs.
It is important to consider all behaviors, and the multitude of reasons that patients may not take their medications as they are prescribed. Understanding the specific reason for each unexpected behavior can help the clinician to take the correct next step, and make decisions that help minimize risk, improve safety, and most of all benefit the patient (Corsini & Zacharoff, 2014).
General Symptoms of Narcotic Abuse
Healthcare professionals must be on the lookout for the following signs and symptoms of opioid use disorder:
- Analgesia (feeling no pain)
- Euphoria (feeling high)
- Respiratory depression (shallow or slow breathing)
- Small pupils
- Nausea, vomiting
- Itching or flushed skin
- Slurred speech
- Confusion or poor judgment
Tools for Monitoring Ongoing Opioid Therapy
Prescribers have a number of tools at their disposal to help with ongoing assessment of chronic pain patients who are receiving opioid analgesic therapy. Here are a few of those tools.
Addiction Behaviors Checklist (ABC)
Developed by Bruce D. Naliboff with support from VA Health Services Research and Development, this is a 20-item, yes/no assessment tool that can increase a provider's confidence in determinations of appropriate vs. inappropriate opioid use (Wu et al., 2006).
Chabal 5-Point Prescription Opiate Abuse Checklist
This is a five-point questionnaire that assesses the risk of opioid abuse through evaluation of behaviors that are consistent with opioid abuse rather than answers to specific questions (Chabal et al., 1997).
Pain Medication Questionnaire (PMQ)
This is a 26-item self-report assessment tool for ongoing monitoring of aberrant behaviors. It helps clinicians to identify whether a long-term chronic pain patient is exhibiting aberrant behaviors associated with opioid medication misuse (Dowling et al., 2007).
Prescription Drug Use Questionnaire (PDUQ)
The PDUQ assesses problematic opioid misuse, abuse, and dependence in chronic pain patients. Evidence suggests the PDUQ’s key screening indicators are excellent predictors for the presence of addiction (Compton et al., 2008).
Drug Abuse Screening Test (DAST)
A self-administered questionnaire consisting of 28 items with binary (yes/no) answers created by Harvey A. Skinner in 1982. Scores of 6 or more indicate the presence of substance dependence or abuse with satisfactory measures of reliability and high levels of validity, sensitivity, and specificity (Yudko et al., 1997). A shorter 10-question DAST (DAST-10) also is used.
Current Opioid Misuse Measure (COMM)
A 17-item patient self-assessment that helps clinicians identify whether a patient, currently on long-term opioid therapy, may be exhibiting aberrant behaviors associated with misuse of opioid medications. Since the COMM examines concurrent misus2007). e, it is ideal for helping clinicians monitor patients' aberrant medication-related behaviors over the course of treatment (Butler et al., 2007).
Regular urine drug screening (UDS) is appropriate for patients who are at higher risk for opioid abuse or addiction, and for any patient who is exhibiting signs of misuse or aberrant drug behavior. Urine screening can indicate drug diversion, misuse, or abuse, and the presence of an illegal drug might indicate addiction. Any nonprescribed opioid may signal drug abuse or doctor shopping.
Pill counting is one method of ensuring medication adherence and helps to prevent drug diversion. Counting pills is done to compare the number of doses remaining in a prescription container with the number of doses that should remain, if the patient adhered to the medication schedule perfectly. However, a clinician cannot be sure that absent pills were consumed; they may have been diverted instead. Healthcare professionals must keep careful records about the amount of medication dispensed, prescription date, date the prescription was filled, and how many doses remain before the refill.Back Next