MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd.

Many patients with chronic pain (CP) are prescribed opioids, a situation which has led to the much-discussed opioid crisis. Integrative medicine (IM), which combines pharmacological and so-called alternative medicine (SCAM), has been proposed as a solution. Yet, the role of SCAM therapies in reducing opioid use remains unclear.

This systematic review explored the effectiveness of the IM approach or any of the SCAM therapies to reduce or cease opioid use in CP patients. Electronic searches yielded 5,200 citations. Twenty-three studies were selected. Eight studies were randomized controlled trials, seven were retrospective studies, four studies were prospective observational, three were cross-sectional, and one was quasi-experimental. The majority of the studies showed that opioid use was reduced significantly after using IM/SCAM. Cannabinoids were among the most commonly investigated approaches in reducing opioid use, followed by multidisciplinary approaches, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and acupuncture. The majority of the studies had limitations related to sample size, duration, and study design.

The authors concluded that there is a small but defined body of literature demonstrating positive preliminary evidence that the IM approach including SCAM therapies can help in reducing opioid use. As the opioid crisis continues to grow, it is vital that clinicians and patients be adequately informed regarding the evidence and opportunities for IM/SCAM therapies for CP.

I am unimpressed by this review.

And here is why:

  1. Because of their design, most of the included studies do not allow any conclusions about cause and effect.
  2. The 8 RCTs that would allow such conclusions are mostly of poor quality.
  3. Some of the 8 RCTs are not even what the review authors claim to be. Here is just one example:

Background: Current levels and dangers of opioid use in the U.S. warrant the investigation of harm-reducing treatment alternatives.

Purpose: A preliminary, historical, cohort study was used to examine the association between enrollment in the New Mexico Medical Cannabis Program (MCP) and opioid prescription use.

Methods: Thirty-seven habitual opioid using, chronic pain patients (mean age = 54 years; 54% male; 86% chronic back pain) enrolled in the MCP between 4/1/2010 and 10/3/2015 were compared to 29 non-enrolled patients (mean age = 60 years; 69% male; 100% chronic back pain). We used Prescription Monitoring Program opioid records over a 21 month period (first three months prior to enrollment for the MCP patients) to measure cessation (defined as the absence of opioid prescriptions activity during the last three months of observation) and reduction (calculated in average daily intravenous [IV] morphine dosages). MCP patient-reported benefits and side effects of using cannabis one year after enrollment were also collected.

Results: By the end of the 21 month observation period, MCP enrollment was associated with 17.27 higher age- and gender-adjusted odds of ceasing opioid prescriptions (CI 1.89 to 157.36, p = 0.012), 5.12 higher odds of reducing daily prescription opioid dosages (CI 1.56 to 16.88, p = 0.007), and a 47 percentage point reduction in daily opioid dosages relative to a mean change of positive 10.4 percentage points in the comparison group (CI -90.68 to -3.59, p = 0.034). The monthly trend in opioid prescriptions over time was negative among MCP patients (-0.64mg IV morphine, CI -1.10 to -0.18, p = 0.008), but not statistically different from zero in the comparison group (0.18mg IV morphine, CI -0.02 to 0.39, p = 0.081). Survey responses indicated improvements in pain reduction, quality of life, social life, activity levels, and concentration, and few side effects from using cannabis one year after enrollment in the MCP (ps<0.001).

Conclusions: The clinically and statistically significant evidence of an association between MCP enrollment and opioid prescription cessation and reductions and improved quality of life warrants further investigations on cannabis as a potential alternative to prescription opioids for treating chronic pain.

This study is evidently NOT an RCT!

Most of the 8 RCTs investigate whether SCAM is useful for weaning opioid-dependent patients off their drug. To equate this with the question whether IM/SCAM can reduce or cease opioid use in CP patients is, I think, wrong. The way to reduce opioid use in CP patients is to prescribe less opioids. And for prescribing less opioids, we need no SCAM but we need to remember what we learned in medical school: opioids are not for routine treatment of CP!

So, why do the authors of this review try to mislead us?

Could it have something to do with some of their affiliations and the bias that goes with it?

  • Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine, North York, Ontario, Canada.
  • Australian Research Centre in Complementary and Integrative Medicine, University of Technology Sydney, Ultimo, Australia.
  • Pacific College of Oriental Medicine, San Diego, California, USA.

What do you think?

One Response to Does SCAM Reduce Opioid Use for Chronic Pain?

  • Such gross misrepresentation of sources merits a letter to the publisher and retraction.
    Also, cognitive behavioral therapy is mainstream for chronic pain.

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