Claims Trends

Treating Chronic Pain With Therapies Instead of Drugs

Other pain relief therapies hold substantial promise in defeating drug dependency.
By: | February 20, 2018 • 9 min read

From high praise to a spiraling crash, opioid-based pain medications are out of favor. Once thought to be the solution to chronic pain, opioids opened the door to an even bigger and scarier addiction epidemic — one that menaces the workers’ comp industry and the population in general.

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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, since 1999, more than 183,000 people have died from narcotic painkiller addiction. An estimated 91 people die each day from opioid abuse.

“Opioids are dangerous drugs. The side effects are dangerous and severe. Their efficacy is not always what people expect,” said Marcos Iglesias, senior vice president, chief medical officer, Broadspire.

“If opioids aren’t the answer, what do we turn to?”

The time to answer that question is now. Workers’ comp professionals, physicians, insurers and employers alike are looking for that next solution to pain, one that will help curb addiction and more quickly get workers on their feet.

Medical cannabis is one candidate.

Marcos Iglesias, senior vice president, chief medical officer, Broadspire

“Marijuana is unique in that everyone comes into the conversation with a bias,” said Mark Pew, senior vice president, PRIUM, a division of Genex Services.

With opioids, he said, no one knew of the dangers at first. Marijuana, on the other hand, always provoked two very polarized views: It does a great deal of good or it’s a strong drug with bad consequences.

A 2014 study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found a link between legalized medical marijuana and a decrease in opioid-related deaths. States that legalized medical marijuana saw a 25 percent decrease in deaths from opioid overdoses.

Yet, “when people make the claim that medical marijuana is the solution to the opioid epidemic, it resonates with some people because of that bias,” said Pew.

Because of ongoing controversy, not to mention its classification as a Schedule 1 narcotic by the federal government, medical marijuana isn’t lined up to be the pain-relief answer anytime soon.

Non-Drug Therapies

So how about this: Let’s treat pain with no drugs. Radical as it may sound, non-drug pain therapies hold merit.

Meta-analyses collected for a U.S. National Library of Medicine study found that cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) had a positive effect on chronic pain and fatigue. Specifically, CBT was found to be a superior method to other treatments for decreasing pain intensity in fibromyalgia patients.

Iglesias, who has worked as a physician for more than 25 years, said CBT, a psycho-social therapy used to teach patients about the emotional and psychological factors influencing their pain, leaves a lasting impression on the injured.

“The methods I’ve seen work well are behavioral approaches — giving people tools and methods so they can manage their own life.”

“Marijuana is unique in that everyone comes into the conversation with a bias.” — Mark Pew, senior vice president, PRIUM

In workers’ comp, physicians using a CBT approach look at an injured worker’s life outside the office walls. Their home life, their health, their financial responsibilities and their mental ability to cope with an injury all factor into the healing process and could potentially lead to a lengthened claim if untreated.

Assessing these additional forces enables a physician to recommend therapies beyond the typical pill prescription.

Sometimes that means sending a patient to physical or occupational therapy. Sometimes yoga or acupuncture will do the trick, with both philosophies tapping into the mind-body connection  and encouraging relief. Exercise, diet and overall wellness are factored into an injured worker’s chronic pain management.

“Drug-related therapies tend to mask the pain symptoms,” said Michelle Despres, vice president, national product leader physical therapy, One Call Care Management. “Opioids are like the ‘quick fix.’ In physical therapy, we investigate pain patterns, seek to correct musculoskeletal problems and teach people about their anatomy.”

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A non-drug pain therapy, PT looks at the physical components of an injury, educating injured workers about the muscles that hurt and how to effectively use them in daily activities. The big question physical therapists ask: What triggers the pain?

“We look at outside activities that could be affecting the injured worker,” she said. “We look at strength, range and flexibility. We want to change the behavior instead of masking the pain.”

Iglesias pointed to another example of non-drug pain therapy called acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), in which health care professionals work with an injured worker to accept their chronic pain but then commit to living their values in spite of that pain.

ACT, in essence, focuses on mindfulness and function in a person’s life.

Iglesias added he’s seen disability duration lessen because more professionals are starting to address function instead of pain.

Cost and Well-being

But pain is still a big factor in an injury, and CBT primarily focuses on pain management. It’s being used increasingly as an alternative to opioids, too. So much so, in fact, that some states are starting to draft legislation aimed at adopting  its methods.

In Ohio, for example, residents with work-related back injuries are now required by law to try remedies such as rest, physical therapy or chiropractic care before surgery or opioids are even brought into the discussion.

And Ohio isn’t alone; at least 17 states have added restrictions on opioid prescriptions, including limiting the length of time such pills can be prescribed. But not all states are turning to CBT and like methods to combat the growing epidemic.

Michelle Despres, vice president, national product leader physical therapy, One Call Care Management

“In workers’ comp, anytime we talk about change, it’s about cost containment,” said Pew. “But this has nothing to do with cost containment, premiums, closing claims, scale of benefits. It’s about personal well-being.”

Iglesias added he has seen much more acceptance of CBT and other non-drug therapies on the payers’ side, though not everyone is on board.

“Payers see opioids have not helped patients. They’re cognizant of needing to move beyond just drug medications. However, psych and behavioral factors can be a significant issue in workers’ comp. Some individual payers are afraid that a behavior approach might induce a psych claim,” he said.

“Nobody wants to pay for everything that happened to you in your life but, in essence, we do when psychosocial concerns aren’t addressed early and it delays recovery,” added Pew.

“There are payers who have started to see the value in the biopsychosocial model [looking at every aspect of a person’s life], but there’s still an obstacle with psych.”

Still, cost-wise, moving beyond opioids yields reduced pharmacy expenses — not just for opioid prescriptions but also for other prescriptions written for opioid-related side effects like nausea, vomiting, headaches, lack of sleep and so on.

“Opioids have addictive qualities,” said Despres. “It’s easy for us as a society to want to see something diagnostic tied to a drug-based solution. But with alternatives, we lose nothing and chances are we can mitigate chronic pain. We know there are no long-term bad effects to physical therapy.

“The cost to get people off of opioids is huge. Just getting them back to their daily routine, the back-end cost of detox from opioids is enough to at least consider other non-drug pain relief methods as the first treatment option.”

Changing Mindsets

Effective change comes once the employers and their workers understand the benefits of non-drug pain therapies.

Untill now, “in between the payer and the treatment is the patient who has often created this passive mindset that someone else will take care of them,” said Pew.

This mindset isn’t going to help in the long run. Education is key for both employees and employers to work toward pain management.

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“One appointment isn’t going to solve the problem,” said Despres. “We have to break the cycle. Time is the biggest downfall; we have to get people moving versus letting someone sit at home. For chronic pain, we provide the education [to the injured worker] on what’s happening inside when they do activities and how to not only manage their symptoms but also correct musculoskeletal imbalances.

“Workers’ comp, as a practice, needs to embrace the idea of being seen quickly and early and getting the injured worker in the mindset of having a role to play,” she added.

For employers, Pew said those who are engaged in their workers’ well-being see more positive outcomes when injuries occur. Investing in wellness programs enables workers to address those outside factors — like psych and diet and exercise routines — before any injury.

“[Wellness programs are] a way of trying to show there is more than a drug or a procedure; employers and physicians can work to teach that concept before an injury even occurs,” said Iglesias.

“There’s a fear that we’re taking something away. There’s a belief that opioids are the best pain modality. Could we develop more programs to teach about opioids to an employer’s population before an injury?”

His answer is a resounding yes.

Public perception plays a big role in the move away from opioids. Workers’ comp professionals, health care workers and legislators see and understand the negative effects of opioids; however, the public isn’t as convinced.

Mark Pew, senior vice president, PRIUM

The New England Journal of Medicine released a study in January entitled, “The Public and the Opioid-Abuse Epidemic.” In it, researchers examined several national polls conducted in 2016 and 2017 regarding how the public believes opioid addiction should be addressed. They found that a significant number (28 percent) don’t actually see it as a national emergency.

Fifty-three percent did say it was a major problem, though only 38 percent of respondents said it affected their home communities.

“An important finding from our review is that at a time when [we] are seeking a substantial increase in government funding for opioid-addiction treatment programs … polls show a large share of the public uncertain about the long-term effectiveness of treatment,” the authors wrote.

They speculate this uncertainty might lead to less funding for alternative treatments to opioids and less funding for people recovering from addiction.

“Sometimes we don’t know everything,” said Despres, “but we should still open up and embrace what could be. If [non-drug therapies] don’t work, you haven’t lost anything. If it does help, you’re better off.”

That’s why engaging employers and their employees is imperative.

“If we see an employer with a pattern of the same injuries, we can offer many possible solutions from ergonomic improvements to classes for body mechanics training.”

A Balancing Act

But one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to pain relief, and while non-drug pain therapies do help, Pew said that doing away with drugs altogether would be unwise.

“Every person is an individual and needs customized — individualized — treatment plans. Every individual is different. How they deal with pain is different, what their support system is like is different — that’s why treating pain is so difficult.

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“Exercise, a better diet, yoga and other non-pharmaceutical treatments are effective, but often underutilized components to a successful pain management protocol. But trying to come up with a one-size-fits-all is counter to common sense,” he added.

In a 2017 study released by JAMA, researchers examined patients admitted to the emergency room for pain-related causes. They monitored the cause of their pain and what medicine brought them relief.

Acetaminophen and ibuprofen were found to be more effective than opioids. Combined, they had as much of an effect on pain as opioids.

Iglesias added, “We do need to move beyond opioids. Other pharmaceuticals do have a role to play, but we need to embrace other modalities of treating pain.” &

Autumn Heisler is the digital producer and a staff writer at Risk & Insurance®. She can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

4 Companies That Rocked It by Treating Injured Workers as Equals; Not Adversaries

The 2018 Teddy Award winners built their programs around people, not claims, and offer proof that a worker-centric approach is a smarter way to operate.
By: | October 30, 2018 • 3 min read

Across the workers’ compensation industry, the concept of a worker advocacy model has been around for a while, but has only seen notable adoption in recent years.

Even among those not adopting a formal advocacy approach, mindsets are shifting. Formerly claims-centric programs are becoming worker-centric and it’s a win all around: better outcomes; greater productivity; safer, healthier employees and a stronger bottom line.

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That’s what you’ll see in this month’s issue of Risk & Insurance® when you read the profiles of the four recipients of the 2018 Theodore Roosevelt Workers’ Compensation and Disability Management Award, sponsored by PMA Companies. These four programs put workers front and center in everything they do.

“We were focused on building up a program with an eye on our partner experience. Cost was at the bottom of the list. Doing a better job by our partners was at the top,” said Steve Legg, director of risk management for Starbucks.

Starbucks put claims reporting in the hands of its partners, an exemplary act of trust. The coffee company also put itself in workers’ shoes to identify and remove points of friction.

That led to a call center run by Starbucks’ TPA and a dedicated telephonic case management team so that partners can speak to a live person without the frustration of ‘phone tag’ and unanswered questions.

“We were focused on building up a program with an eye on our partner experience. Cost was at the bottom of the list. Doing a better job by our partners was at the top.” — Steve Legg, director of risk management, Starbucks

Starbucks also implemented direct deposit for lost-time pay, eliminating stressful wait times for injured partners, and allowing them to focus on healing.

For Starbucks, as for all of the 2018 Teddy Award winners, the approach is netting measurable results. With higher partner satisfaction, it has seen a 50 percent decrease in litigation.

Teddy winner Main Line Health (MLH) adopted worker advocacy in a way that goes far beyond claims.

Employees who identify and report safety hazards can take credit for their actions by sending out a formal “Employee Safety Message” to nearly 11,000 mailboxes across the organization.

“The recognition is pretty cool,” said Steve Besack, system director, claims management and workers’ compensation for the health system.

MLH also takes a non-adversarial approach to workers with repeat injuries, seeing them as a resource for identifying areas of improvement.

“When you look at ‘repeat offenders’ in an unconventional way, they’re a great asset to the program, not a liability,” said Mike Miller, manager, workers’ compensation and employee safety for MLH.

Teddy winner Monmouth County, N.J. utilizes high-tech motion capture technology to reduce the chance of placing new hires in jobs that are likely to hurt them.

Monmouth County also adopted numerous wellness initiatives that help workers manage their weight and improve their wellbeing overall.

“You should see the looks on their faces when their cholesterol is down, they’ve lost weight and their blood sugar is better. We’ve had people lose 30 and 40 pounds,” said William McGuane, the county’s manager of benefits and workers’ compensation.

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Do these sound like minor program elements? The math says otherwise: Claims severity has plunged from $5.5 million in 2009 to $1.3 million in 2017.

At the University of Pennsylvania, putting workers first means getting out from behind the desk and finding out what each one of them is tasked with, day in, day out — and looking for ways to make each of those tasks safer.

Regular observations across the sprawling campus have resulted in a phenomenal number of process and equipment changes that seem simple on their own, but in combination have created a substantially safer, healthier campus and improved employee morale.

UPenn’s workers’ comp costs, in the seven-digit figures in 2009, have been virtually cut in half.

Risk & Insurance® is proud to honor the work of these four organizations. We hope their stories inspire other organizations to be true partners with the employees they depend on. &

Michelle Kerr is associate editor of Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]