Addressing pain at the end of life



A few months ago, a colleague asked me about treating a patient’s pain that he was managing for months both in and out of the hospital for what was now an incurable condition. This very skilled surgeon believed that the patient should “not require” such high doses of opioids based on the clinical picture of a healed surgical wound but felt at a loss of what else to do. He did not want to abandon his relationship with the patient. He considered referral to the anesthesia pain clinic as escalating pain requirements were exceeding his comfort level.

Dr. David Zonies

Alternatively, he considered deferring pain management to the patient’s primary care provider. Instead, we worked together through a rational pain approach and explored external factors that may have been contributing to the patient’s total pain experience. This brief vignette is not atypical and sheds light onto the ongoing need to fill an education gap for surgeons who deal with patients at the end of life.

It has been almost 25 years since the term “pain as the fifth vital sign” was first introduced into the lexicon of clinical practice. The idea was to provide as much zeal to the topic of pain as we do to a patient’s other vital physiological measures. Yet, seriously ill patients with potential life-limiting conditions continue to experience significant pain, especially at the end of life. Among patients with nonmalignant diagnoses, more than 40% experience severe pain within days of their death. For those with malignant conditions, 15%-75% report moderate to severe pain during the final weeks of life. Whether in the ICU, hospital ward, or outpatient setting, our surgical community struggles to provide effective symptomatic pain control in many patients who have transitioned from a curative pathway to one of comfort.

Although we never intend to allow patients to suffer at the end of life, barriers to appropriate pain control persist. In some case cases, patients may feel embarrassed or ashamed to accept escalating opioid doses. In other cases, patients and families may possess misconceptions about addiction to pain medication. It is important to dispel such myths and distinguish tolerance from dependence. Among opioid-naive patients, the risk of dependence (in other words, addiction) is estimated to be 0.1%. Among patients with a history of opioid abuse, the risk of addiction is still only 1%.

Large proportions of physicians continue to report inadequate training in pain control and are reluctant to prescribe high-enough doses of opioids to relieve pain, even at the end of life. One well-described reason has been physician fear of regulatory action and possible litigation for higher than typical opioid dosing.
This was the case for my colleague who was reluctant to escalate pain control.

This in turn leads to undertreating pain which, in fact, has been a source of successful litigation. Because undertreatment of pain may be akin to patient negligence, we should strive to become more comfortable with optimal pain treatment strategies. But pain control is not merely about intravenous opioids or pain tablets. Surgeons should at least have an appreciation for, if not a better understanding, of the modern palliative care approach to “total pain.” This construct consists of four interrelated pain domains: physical, psychological (emotional), spiritual, and social.

Although we tend to focus on physical pain, other domains are influenced by anxiety, depression, and fear. If such an approach seems a bridge too far, optimal care should involve a multidisciplinary team that touches on such areas. This may be most efficiently achieved through consultation and coordination with palliative care services when available. This patient’s surgeon soon discovered that family financial concerns were contributing to the patient’s sleepless nights and worsening somatic pain.

Somewhat outside the scope of typical postoperative care, pain relief at the end of life requires dosing and medication choices for extended periods of time. When establishing a treatment strategy, the surgeon should consider the feasibility and efficacy (half-life, duration, bioavailability, active metabolites) of each modality. In our patient, standard dosing was inadequate; for some, basal doses may increase by 25%-100% for progressive disease. To support the surgeon in learning more about this important area of care, multiple online tools and websites are available to assist with pain management choices. A short while ago, I learned from my colleague that this patient died comfortably and essentially pain free for the last months of his life.

Dr. Zonies is an associate professor of surgery in the trauma/critical care division at Oregon Health & Science University, Portland. He is board certified in hospice and palliative medicine.

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