Conference Coverage

Shift in approach is encouraged in assessing chronic pain

In many cases, dietary interventions can lead to less inflammation



– When clinicians ask patients to quantify their level of chronic pain on a scale of 1-10, and they rate it as a 7, what does that really mean?

Dr. Robert Bonakdar

Robert A. Bonakdar, MD, said posing such a question as the main determinator of the treatment approach during a pain assessment “depersonalizes medicine to the point where you’re making a patient a number.” Dr. Bonakdar spoke at Natural Supplements: An Evidence-Based Update, presented by Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine.

“A personalized approach to pain, on the other hand, considers each patient’s individual journey: their sensitivities, experiences, and failures,” he said. “It considers areas that are often overlooked, such as the role of the gut microbiome, mood, and epigenetics.”

Over the past two decades, the number of American adults suffering from pain has increased from 120 million to 178 million, or to 41% of the adult population, said Dr. Bonakdar, a family physician who is director of pain management at the Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine. Data from the National Institutes of Health estimate that Americans spend more than $600 billion each year on the treatment of pain, which surpasses monies spent on cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. According to a 2016 report from the United States Bone and Joint Initiative, arthritis and rheumatologic conditions resulted in an estimated 6.7 million annual hospitalizations, and the average annual cost per person for treatment of a musculoskeletal condition is $7,800.

“If we continue on our current trajectory, we are choosing to accept more prevalence and incidence of these disorders, spiraling costs, restricted access to needed services, and less success in alleviating pain and suffering – a high cost,” Edward H. Yelin, PhD, cochair of the report’s steering committee, and professor of medicine and health policy at the University of California, San Francisco, said in a prepared statement in 2016. That same year, Brian F. Mandell, MD, PhD, editor of the Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine, penned an editorial in which he stated that “The time has come to move past using a one-size-fits-all fifth vital sign . . . and reflexively prescribing an opioid when pain is characterized as severe” (Clev Clin J Med. 2016. Jun;83[6]:400-1). A decade earlier, authors of a cross-sectional review at a single Department of Veterans Affairs medical center set out to assess the impact of the VA’s “Pain as the 5th Vital Sign” initiative on the quality of pain management (J Gen Intern Med. 2006;21[6]:607–12). They found that patients with substantial pain documented by the fifth vital sign often had inadequate pain management. The preponderance of existing evidence suggests that a different approach is needed to prescribing opioids, Dr. Bonakdar said. “It’s coming from every voice in pain care: that what we are doing is not working,” he said. “It’s not only not working; it’s dangerous. That’s the consequence of depersonalized medicine. What’s the consequence of depersonalized nutrition? It’s the same industrialized approach.”

The typical American diet, he continued, is rife with processed foods and lacks an adequate proportion of plant-based products. “It’s basically a setup for inflammation,” Dr. Bonakdar said. “Most people who come into our clinic are eating 63% processed foods, 25% animal foods, and 12% plant foods. When we are eating, we’re oversizing it because that’s the American thing to do. At the end of the day, this process is not only killing us from heart disease and stroke as causes of death, but it’s also killing us as far as pain. The same diet that’s causing heart disease is the same diet that’s increasing pain.”

Dr. Bonakdar said that the ingestion of ultra-processed foods over time jumpstarts the process of dysbiosis, which increases gut permeability. “When gut permeability happens, and you have high levels of polysaccharides and inflammatory markers such as zonulin and lipopolysaccharide (LPS), it not only goes on to affect adipose tissue and insulin resistance, it can affect the muscle and joints,” he explained. “That is a setup for sarcopenia, or muscle loss, which then makes it harder for patients to be fully functional and active. It goes on to cause joint problems as well.”

He likened an increase in gut permeability to “a bomb going off in the gut.” Routine consumption of highly processed foods “creates this wave of inflammation that goes throughout your body affecting joints and muscles, and causes an increased amount of pain. Over time, patients make the connection but it’s much easier to say, ‘take this NSAID’ or ‘take this Cox-2 inhibitor’ to suppress the pain. But if all you’re doing is suppressing, you’re not going to the source of the pain.”

Dr. Bonakdar cited several recent articles that help to make the connection between dysbiosis and pain, including a review that concluded that dysbiosis of gut microbiota can influence the onset and progression of chronic degenerative diseases (Nutrients. 2019;11[8]:1707). Authors of a separate review concluded that human microbiome studies strongly suggest an incriminating role of microbes in the pathophysiology and progression of RA. Lastly, several studies have noted that pain conditions such as fibromyalgia may have microbiome “signatures” related to dysbiosis, which may pave the way for interventions, such as dietary shifting and probiotics that target individuals with microbiome abnormalities (Pain. 2019 Nov;160[11]:2589-602 and EBioMedicine. 2019 Aug 1;46:499-511).

Clinicians can begin to help patients who present with pain complaints “by listening to what their current pattern is: strategies that have worked, and those that haven’t,” he said. “If we’re not understanding the person and we’re just ordering genetic studies or microbiome studies and going off of the assessment, we sometime miss what interventions to start. In many cases, a simple intervention like a dietary shift is all that’s required.”

A survey of more than 1 million individuals found that BMI and daily pain are positively correlated in the United States (Obesity 2012;20[7]:1491-5). “This is increased more significantly for women and the elderly,” said Dr. Bonakdar, who was not affiliated with the study. “If we can change the diet that person is taking, that’s going to begin the process of reversing this to the point where they’re having less pain from inflammation that’s affecting the adipose tissue and adipokines traveling to their joints, which can cause less dysbiosis. It is very much a vicious cycle that patients follow, but if you begin to unwind it, it’s going to help multiple areas.”

In the Intensive Diet and Exercise for Arthritis (IDEA) trial, researchers randomized 450 patients with osteoarthritis to intensive dietary restriction only, exercise only, or a combination of both (BMC Musculoskelet Disord. 2009;10:93). They found that a 5% weight loss over the course of 18 months led to a 30% reduction in pain and a 24% improvement in function.

Inspired by the IDEA trial design, Dr. Bonakdar and his colleagues completed an unpublished 12-week pilot program with 12 patients with a BMI of 27 kg/m2 or greater plus comorbidities. The program consisted of weekly group meetings, including a lecture by team clinicians, dietician, and fitness staff; group support sessions with a behavioral counselor; and a group exercise session. It also included weekly 1:1 personal training sessions and biweekly 1:1 dietitian meetings. The researchers also evaluated several deficiencies linked to pain, including magnesium, vitamin D, vitamins B1, B2, and B12, folate, calcium, amino acids, omega 3s, zinc, coenzyme Q10, carnitine, and vitamin C. The goal was a weight reduction of 5%.

The intervention consisted of a 28-day detox/protein shake consumed 1-3 times per day, which contained 17 g of protein per serving. Nutritional supplementation was added based on results of individual diagnostics.

According to preliminary results from the trial, the intended weight goal was achieved. “More importantly, there were significant improvements in markers of dysbiosis, including zonulin and lipopolysaccharide, as well as the adipokine leptin, which appeared to be associated with improvement in quality of life measures and pain,” Dr. Bonakdar said.

He concluded his presentation by highlighting a pilot study conducted in an Australian tertiary pain clinic. It found that a personalized dietitian-delivered dietary intervention can improve pain scores, quality of life, and dietary intake of people experiencing chronic pain (Nutrients. 2019 Jan 16;11[1] pii: E181). “This is another piece of the puzzle showing that these dietary interventions can be done in multiple settings, including tertiary centers with nutrition staff, and that this important step can improve pain and quality of life,” he said.

Dr. Bonakdar disclosed that he receives royalties from Oxford University Press, Lippincott, and Elsevier. He is also a consultant to Standard Process.

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