Patient Care

Nine Things Chronic-Pain Specialists Think Hospitalists Need To Know


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9 Things: At a Glance

An occasional series providing specialty-specific advice for hospitalists from experts in the field.

  1. Recognize the differential diagnosis for pain exacerbation in a chronic opioid therapy (COT) patient/chronic pain patient.
  2. Know where the opioids are going.
  3. Sometimes stopping pills, rather than adding them, can cure pain.
  4. Take time to educate patients about methadone and its risk of mortality if not used as prescribed.
  5. A little local anesthetic (and some steroid) goes a long way.
  6. Addiction to opioids is not rare.
  7. Safely changing opioid regimens requires good math and good judgment.
  8. For a low-risk chronic pain patient on low-dose opioids, don’t change the regimen, even if the indication for opioids isn’t clear.
  9. If a patient has pain all the time, they need to be on a medication that works all the time.

The differential diagnosis for pain exacerbation in a chronic opioid therapy (COT) patient/chronic pain patient is:

  1. Worsening medical problem;
  2. New medical problem;
  3. Nonopioid problem (side effect);
  4. Opioid problem (resistance/tolerance/side effect); and
  5. Opioid-induced hyperalgesia.

The search for an etiology and treatment for chronic pain should not end, even if a patient is labeled with “chronic pain syndrome.” The patient could simply be chronically undiagnosed or on an incorrect therapy.

Know where the opioids are going.

Whether it’s auditing a prescription-monitoring program (PMP), checking a urine drug screen, or calling a pharmacist, try to ensure that chronic pain patients are taking the opioids as prescribed. A phone call to the primary opioid prescriber or chronic pain provider could save a busy hospitalist a lot of time.

Using PMP data can consume a lot of time. Typically, only prescribing providers can access PMPs, so delegating this responsibility to someone else is not possible. If your state PMP does not help, simply call the patient’s pharmacy and ask for the last three fill dates on an opioid prescription. This also works well in case the patient’s pharmacy doesn’t participate in a PMP or is delayed in uploading recent prescriber data. Many COT patients have an opioid treatment agreement with their prescriber and must use only one pharmacy to fill opioids.

In January 2013, the University of North Carolina Injury Prevention Center published an analysis of three years of North Carolina PMP data.1 Patients followed by providers who consistently used the state PMP were five times more likely to receive treatment for opioid dependence compared with patients of providers who never used the state PMP.1

Why go through all this trouble if a chronic pain specialist is also doing it? It’s good documentation and good care, like monitoring levels of transplant meds or making sure hemoglobin A1Cs are up to date and trending toward goal. It may only take one misused or diverted opioid pill to result in a serious adverse event.

Sometimes stopping pills, rather than adding them, can cure pain.

Many chronic pain patients accumulate a patchwork of pills (e.g. benzodiazepines, opioids, muscle relaxants, and antidepressants). Many interpret noxious symptoms associated with the drug burden as “uncontrolled pain.” Two conditions that might afflict the pain sufferer who takes multiple medications are opioid-induced hyperalgesia (OIH) and medication-overuse headaches (MOH). They are uncommon but should be on a hospitalist’s differential for difficult-to-control chronic pain. Opioids commonly are implicated in causing MOH, a chronic headache occurring at least 15 days a month, four hours a day if untreated, and for at least three consecutive months. OIH is a nociceptive sensitization caused by opioids that can occur suddenly or insidiously.

If a drug isn’t absolutely necessary, stop it. If you and the patient start by agreeing to the shared goal of improving health, the conversation should go better. An axiom we learned from mentors at the University of Washington is: “There is no pain that cannot be made worse with inappropriate therapy.”

Take time to educate patients about methadone and its risk of mortality if not used as prescribed.

Methadone is less frequently prescribed than other opioids, yet it is more frequently associated with death from overdose. Though there is a risk of overdose and death with any opioid, managing methadone is more difficult. A desperate chronic pain patient may self-escalate their methadone without proper insight into the consequences.

Remember the logarithmic relationship methadone doses have with their morphine equivalency. The following highlights how deceiving the numbers are: 50 mg of methadone is about 100 mg of morphine-equivalent, but 100 mg of methadone is about 1,000 mg of morphine-equivalent, or 10 times as strong.

From 1999 to 2005, methadone-related deaths increased by 468%.2 If the patient doesn’t seem to understand these risks, they are not a good candidate for methadone treatment.

A little local anesthetic (and some steroid) goes a long way.

Hospitalists should offer an assortment of diagnostic and therapeutic injections to chronic pain patients. First, be sure you’ve done your due diligence:

  • What procedures do you have privileges to do?
  • Do you need to be proctored first?
  • How do your local specialists feel about you doing injections?

In light of these considerations, hospitalists should be able to train and be credentialed to offer such procedures as trigger-point injections, joint injections (knees, shoulders), or even a peripheral nerve injection (e.g. lateral femoral cutaneous nerve or ilioinguinal nerve injection). Some hospitalists might even want to learn ultrasound-guided sacroiliac joint injections for chronic unexplained back pain.

Offering an indicated and effective injection is a good nonopioid option. And local anesthetic injections can help hospitalists establish an elusive diagnosis. For example, many patients spend years getting worked up for head and neck pain when dry-needling with a small volume (1 cc) of local anesthetic into a neck muscle trigger point can break their pain generator, eliminating their pain.

Addiction to opioids is not rare.

The use, misuse, and diversion of opioids and all the associated complications have appropriately received considerable media attention. A seminal paper by Porter and Jick titled “Addiction Is Rare in Patients Treated with Narcotics” is one of many tipping points associated with the boom in opioid prescribing.3 Whether it’s a three-day supply of hydrocodone, 24 hours on a PCA, or an opioid rotation, any exposure to opioids can put a patient on the runway to addiction.

There are only 3,071 board-certified addiction specialists certified by the American Board of Addiction Medicine, so access to an addiction specialist might be difficult.4

Nonetheless, do not become complacent and just continue the opioid therapy in a difficult opioid-addicted patient. Express your concerns to the primary opioid prescriber, or help patients who don’t have an opioid prescriber get access and treatment. Otherwise, you have no choice but to taper the opioids.

Ideally, chronic pain management should be delivered in the outpatient arena where long-term monitoring can take place.

Safely changing opioid regimens requires good math and good judgment.

During training and practice, hospitalists become accustomed to rapidly analyze objective data, such as ABGs, ECGs, anion gaps, and vent settings. A hospitalist should become similarly efficient at calculating morphine equivalencies (cautiously with methadone and fentanyl), making dose reductions, and rotating opioids. The more comfortable you are with morphine equivalencies, the faster and safer you will be at rotating opioids. Whatever morphine-equivalence table you feel comfortable with is the one you should use consistently.

We see many providers who unwittingly take, for example, a patient who has become resistant to hydrocodone/acetaminophen 10/325 mg PO TID (30 mg of morphine) and convert them to oxycodone/acetaminophen 10/325 mg PO QID (60 mg of morphine—a doubling), when doubling could cause respiratory depression or a faster path to addiction and dependency.

But there are cases in which judgment should trump math, such as when converting from an IV to an oral regimen. We frequently see patients in the clinic requesting refills for more than 100 mg of hydromorphone because “that’s what I was on when I was hospitalized and on the pump.” If the IV-to-oral conversion leaves you prescribing high doses of oral opioids, plan for a rapid taper and a smooth handoff to the outpatient setting.

One strategy to decrease an error in math and judgment is to use IV PCAs as infrequently as possible if a patient isn’t post-operative and they are able to take oral meds. And never hesitate to consult with your inpatient pharmacist or a chronic pain specialist.

For a low-risk chronic pain patient on low-dose opioids, don’t change the regimen, even if the indication for opioids isn’t clear.

Although it is tempting to become an opioid prohibitionist, if a patient has been taking an opioid for years and is functioning, working, compliant, and has no risk factors for complications from COT, it is likely fine to continue their current regimen. Touch base with the primary opioid prescriber, and if you’re concerned, use some of the monitoring instruments described earlier (PMP, urine drug screen, opioid treatment agreement, pill counts).

If a patient has pain all the time, they need to be on a medication that works all the time.

A good pain history followed by a good neurological and mental health assessment is of incalculable value, especially because physicians often underestimate a patient’s pain intensity and its impact on a patient’s quality of life.5,6 A patient’s pain intensity, quality of life, and function can be dramatically improved by starting a long-acting medication for “constant pain.”

If a patient hurts “24 hours a day” and cannot function on hydrocodone/acetaminophen 10/325 QID, it’s probably because they are constantly reacting to spikes in pain and using a “some of the time” medicine to treat “all the time” pain. Switching to a long-acting medication—and it doesn’t have to be an opioid—could improve control and decrease how much narcotic the patient needs.

If you choose a long-acting opioid (in this case, you could try morphine sulphate extended-release 15 mg BID and satisfy 50% of the hydrocodone need), then you could titrate slowly upwards to where the patient would not need hydrocodone. If the patient still had uncontrolled pain, then either morphine is the wrong compound for them or they are benefiting from the “nonanalgesic properties” of the opioids.

Give the patient the benefit of the doubt; because of genetic polymorphisms, a patient may need several opioid rotations before the right opioid compound is found.

Dr. Schultz is a hospitalist and assistant professor in the department of internal medicine at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. She is board-certified in hospice and palliative care and specializes in chronic pain management. Dr. Ajam is a hospitalist and a clinical assistant professor in the department of anesthesiology at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center and the Carolinas Pain Institute. He is board-certified in chronic pain management.


  1. Garrettson M, Ringwalt C. An evaluation of the North Carolina controlled substances reporting system: part II impact evaluation, January 2013. PDMP Center of Excellence website. Available at: Accessed Sept. 3, 2013.
  2. Kung HC, Hoyert DL, Xu JQ, Murphy SL. Deaths: Final data for 2005, national vital statistics reports; Vol. 56 No. 10. Hyattsville, Md.: National Center for Health Statistics; 2008.
  3. Porter J, Jick H. Addiction rare in patients treated with narcotics. N Engl J Med. 1980;302(2):123.
  4. American Society of Addiction Medicine; personal communication, 2013.
  5. Mäntyselkä P, Kumpusalo E, Ahonen R, Takala J. Patients’ versus general practitioners’ assessments of pain intensity in primary care patients with non-cancer pain. Br J Gen Pract. 2001;51(473):995-997.
  6. Petersen MA, Larsen H, Pedersen L, Sonne N, Groenvold M. Assessing health-related quality of life in palliative care: comparing patient and physician assessments. Eur J Cancer. 2006;42(8):1159-1166.

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