Intractable Pain

Protocols for a lifetime of pain management for patients suffering constant, incurable, excrutiating, unrelenting pain
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The current thrust to humanely identify and treat pain is uncovering a group of patients with severe, chronic intractable pain (IP). While epidemiologic surveys indicate that over 40% of the adult population has chronic, recurrent pain, mainly due to musculo-skeletal degenerative conditions, there is a sub-group of tragic individuals who suffer constant, excruciating, unrelenting pain.1,2 To separate these patients from the more prevalent chronic pain patients, these patients are commonly referred to as IP patients.2 Most states in this country have recently passed IP laws or established guidelines and standards to allow physicians to prescribe opioids and other end-stage treatments to these individuals without legal repercussions. Since IP patients always have an underlying, incurable disease or condition causing IP, their clinical management is complex and may require a specialized clinical setting. Just as renal failure or insulin-dependent diabetes require lifetime care by a cadre of specialized medical personnel, IP likewise requires similar lifetime care due to its incurable nature.

Who Is the IP Patient?

The authors define IP as “pain that is excruciating, constant, incurable, and of such severity that it dominates virtually every conscious moment, produces mental and physical debilitation and may produce a desire to commit suicide for the sole purpose of stopping the pain.” In the authors’ clinical experience, bonafide IP patients suffer profusely and are fundamentally bed- or house-bound in the absence of intense medical management.3 Table 1 presents some common characteristics of the IP patient.

A variety of traumatic and medical conditions may be the underlying cause of IP (see Table 2). Note that over half of them involve spine degeneration.

Common Characteristics of the IP Patient
  • Pain is constant and excruciating
  • Pain reduces sleep and food intake
  • Bed-, chair-, or house-bound in the absence of opioid treatment
  • Depression, attention deficit, confusion, and suicide tendencies
  • Underlying cause is incurable, non-removable, and fails to respond to customary pain therapies
  • Elevated blood pressure and pulse rate
  • Serum adrenal hormone and immune abnormalities


Underlying Causes of Intractable Pain in 100 Consecutive Patients
Admitted to Treatment % Patients
Degenerative spinal disease post-surgery 32%
Degenerative spinal disease non-operable 22%
Fibromyalgia 15%
Migraine-vascular headache 8%
Neuropathies 6%
Congenital skeletal disease 5%
Headache-post trauma 3%
Reflex sympathetic dystrophy 3%
Osteoporosis 2%
Systemic lupus erythematosus 2%
Abdominal adhesions 1%
Interstitial cystitis 1%
Total 100%

IP patients become identified as they systematically fail the usual treatments for acute and chronic pain including anti-inflammatory, mild opioid and non-opioid analgesics, antidepressants, muscle relaxants, and anti-seizure medications. They also don’t respond well to corticosteroid injections in and around the spinal column or peripheral nerves. Physical therapy, exercise, and psychological interventions have usually been to little or no avail because the pain is so profoundly uncontrolled that participation in these therapies is not possible. Potent opioid lifetime therapy is the only treatment to date that has proved to consistently control pain in these individuals. This treatment should be regarded as an end-stage or last resort due to its expense and inherent complications.

Obligation Of Documentation

The physician and ancillary clinical staff must carefully document the presence of IP on the patient’s chart. Not only do most states require documentation for legal purposes, medical management of IP is a lifetime treatment that utilizes potent medication having potentially deleterious complications. At a minimum, the documentation must include medical records that reveal the presence of an incurable, painful condition and unsuccessful treatment attempts with the usual therapies for chronic, recurrent pain. Patients, together with family members or caretakers who are required to accompany them to their appointments, need to provide a detailed history of the onset of IP and subsequent failed treatment attempts. A physical examination is directed toward identifying physical evidence of the cause of pain and neuro-muscular abnormalities that are fixed, incurable, and irremovable. IP, in an uncontrolled state, will invariably demonstrate physiologic or laboratory abnormalities, since IP causes over-excitation of the cardiovascular, autonomic, and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal systems. Common physical signs and symptoms include tachycardia, hypertension, mydriasis, hyperreflexia, anxiety, and depression.

Goals Of Treatment

Once the diagnosis of IP is established, both immediate and short-term treatment goals should be quickly established. Often, the undiagnosed or under-treated IP patient is so ill and bed-or chair-bound that diet, ambulation, and hygiene have been severely neglected. Some uncontrolled IP patients make frequent visits to an emergency room just to obtain a modicum of relief. Physicians should initially attempt to determine one opioid that family and patient report to be effective and prescribe this opioid in a dosage and frequency adequate enough to stop emergency room visits and allow the patient to ambulate, begin a proper diet, and attempt to return to normal activities of daily living. Physiologic abnormalities such as tachycardia, hypertension, and altered adrenal hormone concentrations should be identified and serve as biologic markers to gauge treatment effectiveness. Pain monitoring utilizing a pain scale noting severity from 0 (no pain) to 10 (severest pain) should be used to help control pain. The long-term goals are to help the IP patient become ambulatory and be able to leave home to shop, socialize, and possibly work. Psychiatric conditions, particularly depression and suicidal tendency should be treated. A good quality of life, to the extent possible with medication, is the goal — rather than an impractical one, such as withdrawal from all medication or seeking a “miracle” treatment or the elusive cure. Life extension and improved quality of life is clearly possible if IP is controlled.

First published on: May 1, 2002