Chronic pain, and back pain in particular, is among the most frequent concerns for patients in the primary care setting. Roughly 8% of adults in the United States say they suffer from chronic low back pain, and many of them say the pain is significant enough to impair their ability to move, work, and otherwise enjoy life. All this, despite decades of research and countless millions in funding to find the optimal approach to treating chronic pain.
As the United States crawls out of the opioid epidemic, a group of pain specialists is hoping to identify effective, personalized approaches to managing back pain. Daniel Clauw, MD, professor of anesthesiology, internal medicine, and psychiatry at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, is helping lead the BEST trial. With projected enrollment of nearly 800 patients, BEST will be the largest federally funded clinical trial of interventions to treat chronic low back pain.
In an interview,
What are your thoughts on the current state of primary care physicians’ understanding and management of pain?
Primary care physicians need a lot of help in demystifying the diagnosis and treatment of any kind of pain, but back pain is a really good place to start. When it comes to back pain, most primary care physicians are not any more knowledgeable than a layperson.
What has the opioid debacle-cum-tragedy taught you about pain management, particular as regards people with chronic pain?
I don’t feel opioids should ever be used to treat chronic low back pain. The few long-term studies that have been performed using opioids for longer than 3 months suggest that they often make pain worse rather than just failing to make pain better – and we know they are associated with a significantly increased all-cause mortality with increased deaths from myocardial infarction, accidents, and suicides, in addition to overdose.
Given how many patients experience back pain, how did we come to the point at which primary care physicians are so ill equipped?
We’ve had terrible pain curricula in medical schools. To give you an example: I’m one of the leading pain experts in the world and I’m not allowed to teach our medical students their pain curriculum. The students learn about neurophysiology and the anatomy of the nerves, not what’s relevant in pain.
This is notorious in medical school: Curricula are almost impossible to modify and change. So it starts with poor training in medical school. And then, regardless of what education they do or don’t get in medical school, a lot of their education about pain management is through our residencies – mainly in inpatient settings, where you’re really seeing the management of acute pain and not the management of chronic pain.
People get more accustomed to managing acute pain, where opioids are a reasonable option. It’s just that when you start managing subacute or chronic pain, opioids don’t work as well.
The other big problem is that historically, most people trained in medicine think that if you have pain in your elbow, there’s got to be something wrong in your elbow. This third mechanism of pain, central sensitization – or– the kind of pain that we see in fibromyalgia, headache, and low back pain, where the pain is coming from the brain – that’s confusing to people. People can have pain without any damage or inflammation to that region of the body.
Physicians are trained that if there’s pain, there’s something wrong and we have to do surgery or there’s been some trauma. Most chronic pain is none of that. There’s a big disconnect between how people are trained, and then when they go out and are seeing a tremendous number of people with chronic pain.