Ethical issues in the management
of chronic nonmalignant pain

Pappagallo M, Heinberg LJ
Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences,
Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine,
MD 21287-0873, USA.
Semin Neurol 1997; 17(3):203-11


Chronic pain represents a challenge to patients, families, employers, and the physicians who care for these individuals. Opioids remain the mainstay of the analgesic medications for the treatment of both acute and chronic pain. Controlled release preparations of morphine, oxycodone, fentanyl and long acting opioid agents such as methadone and levorphanol have been medically and ethically accepted in managing chronic cancer pain. However, the continued use of these medications for patients with chronic noncancer pain has been fiercely debated. This article attempts to reconcile the medical and ethical dilemma of using opioid medications for chronic noncancer pain. Growing clinical experience in the field of pain medicine has helped to clarify: (1) the misunderstanding of addiction, physical dependence and analgesic tolerance, (2) the misconception that chronic opioid therapy inevitably causes personality changes, depression, and impairment of cognitive and physical function, (3) the lack of information on the correct use of opioid analgesics with regard to titration and management of related side effects. The behavioral management of pain patients undergoing chronic opioid therapy is also discussed. A protocol for optimal patient management is proposed. Particular emphasis is given to the consent form, behavioral contracting, and the consequences of noncompliance. The importance of psychologic evaluation before a long-term opioid trial, to minimize future complications, is stressed. Although most patients on the opioid regimen do well, special attention must be given to patients with current addiction, a past history of addiction, or current misuse of opioid medications. Pharmacologic and conservative interventions are often warranted in those patients with significant behavioral problems. If such strategies fail, and chronic opioid therapy is deemed necessary, some treatment guidelines are offered.
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