Pain Management for the Non-addicted

Hydrocodone (Norco, Lortab, and Vicodin’s main ingredient) has been in the news a lot in the last few months.  People are dying from overdoses.  While that is very sad, it has created mayhem for those who take meds as directed.  Those who follow the rules are being ‘punished’ because of the actions of those who don’t (yes, I believe addiction is a disease, but there is a point in the beginning where using chemicals is a choice; genetics is said to load the gun, circumstance pulls the trigger, and the addict *at first* has their finger on the trigger… addiction doesn’t happen at literal gunpoint).

Hydrocodone has been moved from a schedule III to a schedule II.  That means that any refills must have a paper prescription- no getting phoned in refills.  Those with chronic pain must now go to the MD office and get the piece of paper to take to the pharmacy, then wait for the prescription to be filled, and then go back home.  That is ludicrous when someone hurts so much that leaving home for anything is painful.  My spine is collapsing, my discs are degrading, my thighs are shrinking from neuropathy, and I’ve got fibromyalgia.  I also have chronic headaches.  I’m in a lot of pain, more days than not. I don’t remember ‘pain-free’.   And now, I have to deal with the actions of people I have never met who have emotional issues that they use drugs I need to squelch.  Those people are now dictating my medical care.

Less than %6 of those who are prescribed opiates who TAKE THEM AS PRESCRIBED ever become addicted (Google it).  So, %94+ of those who need pain meds for chronic conditions are now subject to stricter rules because of those who use them for psychological reasons/pain.  I’ve had a prescription for one form of narcotic or another for almost 20 years.  I might take the meds for a few days and then take none for a couple of weeks.   I might take one pill on those days, or I might take two or three across the 24-hour period.  Depending on the type of pain I’m having, an extra gabapentin (seizure med also used in pain control) or even Excedrin will work better than the opiate.  Depending on the headache type, a triptan works much better than an opiate.  But on those days when narcotics are the only thing that will make it worth taking another breath so I can remind myself that it will ease up at some point, I shouldn’t have to pay for what an addict is doing.

Addicts are going to get their opiates (if that’s their drug of choice) no matter what.  I see this change in ‘rules’ driving more people to use herion or other illegally obtained drugs, and anticipate notable jumps in heroin deaths and overdoses over the next few years.  I already know of an entire medical group’s practice (for one entire hospital system here) that no longer allows primary care docs to prescribe pain meds because of this new change in the law (doctors already are monitored for how many prescriptions they write for narcotics, how many pills they give at a time, etc).  So the doc who knows the patient the best isn’t allowed to determine what is best for him/her.

My primary care doc  initially wasn’t comfortable in prescribing stronger  opiates when regular Vicodin (hydrocodone 5mg w/ acetaminophen 500mg) wasn’t working (after the discontinuation of Darvocet, which was effective), so I went to see a board certified pain management doctor.  Once I had a ‘system’ of what med to use when, she was then OK with prescribing, so I could have one doctor prescribing the vast majority of my prescriptions (my neurologist is the only other one), using one local pharmacy, and one mail-order pharmacy.

I have worked as a detox RN in a treatment center.  I ‘get’ that drug addiction is a disease.  I have a great deal of empathy for those who are in treatment and making positive changes in their lives.  But their inability to handle meds should not determine my medical care.  What someone else can’t control shouldn’t create issues for MY doctor when I am able to take meds as prescribed, and have for two decades (for chronic pain).  Acetaminophen (Tylenol) is the leading cause of liver failure in this country…. why isn’t that scheduled (or withdrawn from the market)?  Alcohol-related deaths can take out entire families at a time w/drunk driving- should we have licenses for buying booze?  Why are those with legitimate, documented medical disorders that cause pain made to ‘pay’ for those who don’t use the meds as directed?

My primary care doc and pain management doc (who I only see sporadically at this point) know me better than the DEA does.  My pharmacist can vouch for no hinky requests for refills.  I’ve never shown up in an ER asking for pain meds.  I don’t crave narcotics.  I don’t take larger doses, or more frequent doses than are prescribed.  I follow the rules.  And now, especially with winter approaching, I will have to go pick up a piece of paper (getting in and out of the car is painful in the summer, let alone the cold) which, until October 6,2014, was done by phone between pharmacy and the doc’s office.  I had to go every three months to be re-evaluated (which still stands), which isn’t a bad thing.  I don’t think pain meds should be thrown around as if they are insignificant… but  addiction isn’t my problem.  Pain is.  There is a huge difference.  I don’t even let myself get to the point of physical tolerance (when someone takes something as prescribed, and the body becomes used to it being there… withdrawal symptoms can happen if the med is abruptly stopped- and that is not the same as addiction).  There is a gross lack of awareness between addiction, dependence, abuse, and tolerance- and I think that applies to policy-makers as well.

No law is going to save people from themselves if they either don’t want to be saved, or don’t see that they have a problem.  They might not ‘get it’ on the first run through rehab or 12-step meetings… but those who keep at recovery will eventually get there, and be clean.

 

For those who are now in a position of not having a physician who will prescribe pain meds (whether from fear, ignorance, or restrictions from his/her employer- you may not know why they have changed their policies), here are some tips from an RN of nearly 30 years, who has taken care of addicts, chronic pain patients, and lives with chronic pain:

1.  See ONLY a board certified pain management doctor for pain control.  They often have ‘rules’ such as random drug screens, no dosage change over the phone, limits as to how many months before actually making an in-person appointment (vs. picking up the prescription from the desk), etc. Do NOT see a doc who asks how you will pay, writes a prescription, and has a line around the block…. Do. Not. Go. There.   😮

2.  Use only one pharmacy (two ONLY if you also get meds from a mail-order pharmacy for other chronic conditions).  Let your doctors know which pharmacy you use, and offer to get copies of records if they want them.  Pharmacies are bound by HIPAA (privacy laws), and might not be able to tell the doc asking what other docs have prescribed (if someone from the same practice is on call, they probably can, since they are acting on your regular doc’s behalf for you).

3.  Don’t dramatize pain.  Tell the doctor where the pain is, how bad it is, when it is better, when it is worse, what helps, and what makes it escalate.  You may have pain for the rest of your life- don’t wear out the extreme descriptions when you have 30-65 or more years to describe it.  Sometimes letting your doctor know what the pain keeps you from doing is helpful…. those pain scales are kind of useless for chronic pain.  But, if you tell your doctor that when it’s moderate, you have to postpone laundry, or if it’s moderately severe, you have to cancel appointments, that can give better information for chronic pain.  It’s way different than acute pain.

4.  Agree to get tests done to more clearly identify what is causing pain.  If you refuse to get diagnostic tests done, that can indicate that you know that nothing is going to show up.  Not all disorders show up on tests, but working with your doctor when they want more information via testing will go a long way.

5.  NEVER change doses or frequency without talking to the doctor who prescribed the pain meds (or any meds, for that matter), unless you have been given specific instructions.   There are some pain meds that have a very narrow window between effective dose and the dose that will cause you to stop breathing.

6.   Don’t ever forget the good parts of your life.  You are not defined by your pain or any other medical conditions.  You decide if you are happy or not.  You decide if you focus on nothing else.  I know that there are days (and sometimes weeks) when you really can’t focus on anything else for much of the time… but when you can, take advantage of those days and be thankful for your pets, family, friends, the ability  to still work (I’d give just about anything to still be working as an RN), your interests, etc.  Your attitude is completely in your control, even if nothing else seems to be.   😉  ❤

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Sorting Through The Symptoms…

 I’m whining.  *** Warning *** I’m not chipper and smiley right now…

Read at your own risk 😉

This has been a weird few weeks.  Actually, things started to get worse with the dysautonomia during chemo for leukemia, which was fairly expected, but it’s getting worse.  Chemo messes with autonomic dysfunction, especially with diabetics, or those with previously diagnosed dysautonomia.  Add in some menopause, and changes in some medications/insulin- and the party just keeps getting better.  I’m tired of trying to figure out what is from what (fibromyalgia/chronic pain, chronic migraines, chronic headaches, reactions to foods, etc).

This past weekend (a few days after two epidural injections- one in my thoracic spine, and one in the lumbar spine), I had some horrific nights with severe leg spasms and cramping. Normally, I don’t have any type of reaction to the steroid injections, other than a day or so of higher than usual blood sugars, so I didn’t really think that was the cause.   I’ve had these  spasms before, but usually getting up once and forcing my feet into a ‘flat’ position, then walking around for a few minutes generally helps.  Friday night was like that.  Saturday night was a nightmare.  I was up every 45-60 minutes, with spasms that actually made the calf muscle (the ‘drumstick’ one) have an indentation in it (like a shallow dish) until I could get the muscle relaxed.  These types of muscle spasms are incredibly painful, and I find myself doing  sort of breathing that reminds me of someone giving birth on TV. Or acting like it.

I finally gave in and called my pain doc early Sunday morning – around 7:30 a.m.  He was very prompt in calling back, and heard me out when I  asked about serotonin syndrome- which he didn’t think was likely. That was good news (no need to go to the ER).   He did  tell me to not take the tramadol anymore, just in case.  I’ve been on methadone for pain for several months now, and had noticed that it wasn’t working as well with that original dose (which spooks me after watching people detox from methadone when I worked drug/alcohol detox.  It’s THE worst type of detox that I’ve ever seen -and I’ve seen lots of alcoholics, cocaine/speed addicts, heroin/opiate addicts, and benzodiazepine addicts- they have a ‘bonus’ 10-15 days after they stop taking the benzos, with another round of acute symptoms, etc).  I’ve been chicken about even taking methadone- but it’s a legit pain med, not expensive- AND, when used as prescribed, it’s safe. I use it as prescribed, and it still gives me the creeps.  I’m lucky to have found a pain doc who doesn’t just write prescriptions right and left.  There are ‘rules’ for being one of his patients.  I respect that.  At any rate, he told me to take a bit more methadone then and another muscle relaxant, and try to get some rest.   I did as I was told, and did get some sleep.  During the worst part of the spasms, it feels like the muscle is being torn from the bone- that has stopped, thank God.   Today has been one of fatigue- but no more spasms.

Trying to figure out what is going on when I start having symptoms can be tricky.  I had e-mailed my primary doc about the symptoms on Friday evening, and she wants me to have some lab work done, which is a good thing.  As a diabetic, I’m a little on the paranoid side about my kidneys.  The chemo was hard on my blood sugars, and I’ve got them MUCH better- but still some wacky ones here and there.  I’ve had a lot of peripheral and autonomic neuropathy symptoms- so that’s sort of my ‘default’ assumption when something is weird.  I get flushed, my skin is hot- but I can feel cold (strange for me), I get blotchy areas on my chest, and in general don’t look OK….

Dysautonomia episode w/ chest blotching, severe flushing, lightheadedness, and other symptoms that come and go with various intensities.

Dysautonomia episode w/ chest blotching, severe flushing, lightheadedness, and other symptoms that come and go with various intensities.

It’s hard to know if muscle cramps could be from potassium, sodium, calcium, or magnesium deficiencies (and those can get really bad- as in don’t make plans for next weekend, since you could be six-foot under by then).  Bulimics are very prone to those- and electrolyte deficiencies are big in sudden deaths from eating disordered patients.  But I’m not in that category any longer, thank God.  The peripheral neuropathy (likely diabetes related) in my legs doesn’t help.  My thighs have deteriorated, and actually shrunk (posterior thighs)- so they tend to hurt faster than before, after doing anything.

My blood pressure has been crazy again (directly from dysautonomia changes), and I’m going to have to start a different form of propranolol (Inderal), as every Medicare part D (drug plan) formulary I checked has cut out the extended release from the generic list.  It’s been generic for a LONG time- but now it’s priced in the ‘preferred BRAND’ category.  I have too many meds to spend a $42 co-pay for 90 days for one med (well, actually two- they cut the extended release seizure meds as well- but I do OK on the regular release form of that).  I already have to pay out of pocket for insulin and syringes, since getting them would push me into the ‘coverage gap’ (donut hole) requiring ALL meds to be out of pocket- which is a map for going straight to non-compliance.  And a non-compliant patient is loathed by medical professionals.  Doesn’t matter WHY someone doesn’t take their meds. There are a LOT of us out here who have to juggle medical expenses to be sure there are funds for the entire year.   Medicare is not free.   Anyway, the symptoms are acting weird, and some days, it’s hard to get much of anything done.  BUT, I still have so much to be thankful for.  I can still think, and put together what I think is going on so I can tell my docs the information they need to know.

Menopause is a special little treat that makes the dysautonomia worse. I have had a few hot flashes- and thank GOD that they aren’t the same as my general heat intolerance.  They are brief, and feel like fire from inside… I adjust the air conditioner (had it on when it was 17 degrees Fahrenheit this winter), and ride it out.  I hadn’t expected the ‘morning sickness’ from the hormonal mayhem, so Phenergan and Zofran have become good friends.

Oh well, done venting 😉   It’s been unpleasant.  But, I’m still living indoors, and have the blog and other online interactions (though the public comments on most sites aren’t worth the nastiness).   I’ll get the blood test done this week.  Onward !

UPDATE:  The Propranolol LA 120mg (generic for many, many years) is actually $77 per MONTH out of pocket.  And I have to have it.  I tried the regular release and all I did was sleep, get up to take meds, and sleep some more.  My life is limited, but being awake is one of the perks I do look forward to.

Crazy Few Months…

I’m tired.  The last few months have been fairly miserable.  I’ve been on Nutrisystem since the latter part of May of this year.  That was all going well with more than 30 pounds lost and kept off even through the crazy stuff.  Then, sometime in late July (I think) I started having daily headaches with nausea. So it was hard to keep up with the eating like I should.  I gained back a few pounds (nothing disastrous), and just tried to get through the days.  Of course, with a history of cancer, horrible things come to mind when anything is different, so I felt I needed to get things checked out… one doc at a time. I had up-coming appointments (regular follow-up stuff) with most of my docs- so other than rescheduling one of them, I was already going to be seen.  It took me a while to get the energy to even get to the doctors’ offices, and timing the appointments in the afternoon, so if I woke up with the headaches and nausea I had some time to take something and get it better ‘enough’ to get to their offices.

The oncologist saw the muscle wasting in my thighs, and felt it was more of a ‘job’ for my neurologist.  He sent off another vial of blood for the genetic testing that detects changes in my DNA that would be consistent with a relapse of acute promyelocytic leukemia.  I haven’t gotten any calls saying it turned out badly, so that’s good.  He reminded me that chemo is hard on the peripheral nervous system, and since I already have dysautonomia, it could hit it harder. But, he still wasn’t the best  specialist to handle that.  I appreciate a doctor who knows when to turf someone to someone else 🙂

So, in the meantime, I had to see my endocrinologist.  Since being on Nutrisystem, my cholesterol is now normal, my AIC is %5.5 (from %5.8- I’ve had pretty good numbers since I was diagnosed in 1995- %10.2 then; the worst it got on chemo was %6.8- which is not acceptable to me, even though some diabetic references aim for under %7). My kidneys look good, and while my triglycerides are still high, they’re down by 100 !   That appointment went well.  A couple of weeks later, I found out that I was in the Medicare Part D (prescription coverage) ‘donut hole’ where there is no coverage until out of pocket reaches another dollar number.  I have a part D plan that covers many generics in the donut hole, but insulin is considered a ‘biological’ medication, so the patent never wears out, and there is no generic.  Walmart has partnered up with a big insulin company and offers the ‘older’ types of insulin for $25 per vial… that’s down from over $200 per vial for Lantus (and even NPH if not from Walmart and their ‘deal’).  Today, I’m switching over to NPH- so I’m watching my blood sugar more closely.  I had steroid injections yesterday (more on that later), so my blood sugar has been predictably higher. I’m a little nervous about the switching since NPH has an onset, peak, and duration that are much different than Lantus (which essentially stays at a steady level).  There’s more risk of hypoglycemia- so I have to eat (not great with nausea).  Anyway, I’m thankful for the Walmart insulin… I can’t afford the $300/month co-pay (the insulin companies offer a break in the donut hole- but it’s still more than I can afford).  Medicare is expensive !!

On to the neurologist.  She asked me a bunch of questions, saw my thighs (I wore shorts- partly because of the heat intolerance and mostly because I wanted her to see the difference).  She decided I needed an EMG test (electromyelogram).  It’s a test that sounds horrible, but wasn’t any big deal.  First she put prong thingies over various nerves  and zapped a little electricity in them to see what reaction showed up on the screen (and how my foot/leg twitched !!).  Then she put  thin needles in my muscles and applied pressure, then none, to see what that reaction was on the screen. It wasn’t a bad test at all.  Neuropathy is the diagnosis.  No big surprise there. She thinks it’s from the diabetes (and chemo making the neuropathy I already had worse), and that even with good numbers for YEARS in the diabetes department, it’s still possible to have damage.  Bummer.  I thought that’s why I was being careful with my blood sugars. 😦   She also ordered some lab work which got drawn yesterday, and I’ll return to see her in a couple of weeks to go over that.  I know I don’t have syphilis (ha !! 😀 ), and my thyroid has always tested OK.  I’m not sure about my sed rate (inflammation marker), B-12, or serum protein electrophoresis numbers.  She’s just being thorough… OK.  On to the next one.

I saw my pain guy yesterday after a horrible weekend of left shoulder and trapezius muscle pain (trap is between the shoulder and neck).  It was almost ER-worthy, but going to the ER when you have chronic pain AND a pain management doctor is never a good thing. You automatically get categorized as a ‘drug seeker’ and your credibility as a human being in general hits the toilet and swirls there.  So I stuck it out, taking the over the counter and prescription stuff I’ve got, as well as using Salonpas patches (like BenGay or Theragesic on tape), Absorbine Jr, and trying to stretch sore muscles out. Because of the dysautonomia, I can’t use heat packs. As it was, the pain was causing a lot of autonomic symptoms (severe flushing mostly on my left cheek, major heat issues- the outdoor temp was in the 40s (F) and I had the air conditioner on- and general ‘yuck’ feeling).  SO I punted.  It’s the pits to know if I went for help I’d be ridiculed and discounted.  It’s sad to not be able to get help because there are people who do nothing but beg for medications for their addiction, not for legitimate pain.  It’s hard to be lumped into the same category as those folks, when those judging don’t know me.

When I called on Monday to get the appointment, I was told the earliest was next week… I asked to be put on the cancellation list, and what do you know… I got a call 10 minutes later saying I could get in yesterday (Tuesday).  One o’clock p.m.   I’d be there come hell or high water (we had snow forecast, but that wasn’t a problem- and never materialized).

I got to the appointment a bit early to fill out the little person diagram showing where I was hurting and telling how much the pain had been helped since the last time I’d been there.  The last time, I got injections in my left jaw (TMJ- which could have been ‘helping’ the left neck and shoulder pain) and lower back epidural.  They helped.  The neck injections have never helped me, but those two did.  I wanted that again !

I also told him that the ‘as needed’ Norco 10/325 wasn’t doing anything (never really had), the Ultram was only marginally helpful (better than nothing), and I was ready to cry uncle and go back on the methadone.  I’ve been terrified of that stuff ever since watching people detox from it when I worked drug and alcohol rehab.  It is hands down THE worst med to detox from (this is from an objective view- I’m sure people coming off of other stuff thought theirs was bad enough !). But, it’s also a very ‘legit’ pain med, and has the perk of not having much of the ‘high’ feeling sought after by addicts.  Even though I’ve never had a drug abuse problem, I’m uber-careful with narcotics.  He ordered the methadone to be taken regularly instead of ‘as needed’ to get the maximum benefit- and it’s a relatively low dose, so I’m not as spazzed out as I was a few months ago, even thinking about methadone.  I need some relief.  It’s time to suck it up and use the bigger guns.  The other option was the fentanyl patch- which is probably in my future (I’ve been on them before).  There’s room to fiddle with the methadone dose (when instructed to) to get the best results, so I’m OK with taking it- and I know I’ve gotten ‘off’ of it before with no horrible symptoms, by tapering it.  I have to have some time when the pain isn’t there ALL the time, regardless of activity (or lack of activity) level.

I also got some low dose sumatriptan (active ingredient in Imitrex) to use with Aleve (naproxen sodium) and ‘make’ a sort of version of Treximet- which isn’t covered on the prescription thingie… I’d had samples of the Treximet before for the headaches, and it did have a noticeable impact on the pain, though it made me tired- when it gets to the point of needing meds, tired isn’t a bad trade-off.  I can still use the Ultram for breakthrough pain.

Then on to the injections, done by flouroscopy, or ‘moving’ x-ray.  The jaw injection does hurt enough to call it pain (and leaves a bump for a few hours until the meds are absorbed), but it has a lasting benefit, so it’s worth it to me.  The one in my lower spine doesn’t really hurt going in- there’s  a bit of a sting with the local anesthetic, but then it’s just a bit of pressure.  The steroids do have an impact on blood sugar (not the greatest timing when switching to a new insulin, but I had to get some relief).  I was glad to have them done.  The lumbar epidural will also help with the physical therapy exercises (more on that … NOW !).

That gave me just enough time to get to the physical therapy appointment (I was at the pain guy’s place for 2 1/2 hours ! ).  Now I’m rarely away from home for more than the time it takes to grocery shop.  I had the ice vest on (since the weather is cooling off, people turn on their heaters- so no break with the seasons), which helped, but it was starting to have a more ‘neutral’ feel to it.  The physical therapist was very pleasant and showed me exercises to do at HOME !   I told her that I’m horrible with appointments because of the headaches, nausea, and pain.  I can do stuff at home.  I also told her about the dysautonomia, and how heat, pain, and heart rate elevations can lead to me passing out cold.  Neither of us want that.  So, she showed me the exercises and gave me written instructions and a band thingie to tie around my knees for one of the exercises.   She also told me how to rig similar straps and things to squeeze between my knees, but I got home and ordered the same stuff she used from Amazon.  They weren’t that expensive, and I can see having to use them for a while…

I had to go to the pharmacy to get the prescriptions filled (one is not something that can be called or faxed).  While that was going on, I got some apples and Pecorino Romano cheese, and a couple of other things. I got home 4+ hours after leaving home.  I was exhausted.  But, glad to have it all ‘done’.

Today, I’m back to eating the Nutrisystem food  as it’s supposed to be eaten.  During the months of nausea, I was eating NS food when I could, but mostly not eating enough.  I had more carbs than I had been since they are often bland enough to tolerate.  My stomach has been ‘enough’ better to go back to meals.  I also got my nausea meds changed, and that has helped.  The stuff I’ve used for years just isn’t cutting it any longer.

So, that’s the last few months in a nutshell.  It helps that I’ve been an RN for 28 years. Keeping myself running, even on disability, is a job in itself.

Shelby (puppy) is doing well, and I was contacted this week by a dog treat company about using her photos in a video of still photos of various ‘fans’ of their product, so I’m excited about that!

Just a happy puppy kind of day !   Shelby- 4 months.

Just a happy puppy kind of day ! Shelby- 4 months.

 

Shelby !  Future 'movie' star :D

Shelby ! Future ‘movie’ star 😀

Growing up !

Growing up !