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10 Articles in Volume 7, Issue #7
Burning Mouth Syndrome
Chronic Pain Program in a Primary Care Setting
Chronic Persistent Pain Can Kill
Education and Exercise Program for Chronic Pain Patients
Managing Pain in Intensive Care Units
Oxycodone to Oxymorphone Metabolism
Patulous Eustachian Tube: Part 1
Rational, Emotive, Ethical Approaches to Bio-psychosocial Pain Care
Smoking and Aberrant Behavior in Chronic Pain Patients
Structuring Opioid Therapy

Chronic Persistent Pain Can Kill

Case report of a male patient whose death was hastened by chronic pain.

This article is based on the author’s poster presentation at the June 2007 International Conference on Pain and Chemical Dependency in New York City.

Having been a physician for over 30 years, I have treated literally thousands of patients of all ages who have come from virtually all walks of life. As a solo private practitioner for over 25 years, specializing in rheumatology and pain management, I see first hand the impact chronic pain can have not only on the patients’ health but also on the quality of their lives, especially when it comes to interpersonal relationships and finances. Chronic pain can be a significant stressor per se and its sequelae can often include divorce, social isolation, and financial ruin.

At the twelfth annual American Academy of Pain Management meeting, I lectured on the topic of chronic pain shortening life. It was entitled, “Can Pain Kill?”1 I emphasized that chronic pain is a significant source of stress and that stress can cause problems with a patient’s immune system which, in turn, may lead to increased risks of infection, cancer and other medical problems. Having been trained as an immunologist whose PhD thesis dealt with B-cell and T-cell cooperation, I naturally approached the subject of chronic pain from an immunological perspective. More recently, authors have described deliterious effects of chronic pain affecting other organ systems.2,3 Moreover, abrupt discontinuation of opioid medication can result in potentially lethal cardiac problems such as a Takotsubo-like cardiomyopathy.4 This case report focuses on the untimely death of a relatively young adult due, in part, to chronic persistent pain. It was first described by me in 2005.5 Since that time, other such cases have come to the fore.

Case Report

A 39 year-old white male was referred to my office by his attorney for an evaluation of injuries he sustained while working on a barge. He was employed as a tankerman with an oil company and was dispatched to load a barge with gasoline. While doing so, a chicksan (an apparatus used to transfer fuel from storage tanks to barge) malfunctioned and struck the patient on the chest, left shoulder, abdomen, left leg/ankle, and right leg/ankle. He was driven into the mooring cell and became trapped. He had chemical/gasoline burns on his feet and suffered injuries from being crushed between the loading arm of the chicksan, barge, and the dock’s mooring wall. He was taken by ambulance to a hospital where he was admitted to the trauma service. On the way to the hospital he was noted to be hypotensive with a blood pressure of 90/P. He was given intravenous fluids which raised his blood pressure to 110/P. He was discharged from the hospital with a diagnosis of:

  1. right bimalleolar ankle fracture,
  2. left ankle sprain,
  3. left dorsal foot abrasion,
  4. hypertension,
  5. diabetes.

He was treated with Warfarin Sodium (Coumadin®) for prophylaxis against thrombosis, 1800 calorie ADA diet, closed reduction and splinting of the right foot and ankle, and immediate release Oxycodone/Acetaminophen (Percocet®) for pain. He was seen by several consults and was transferred to a Rehab Hospital where he remained for 8 days. The patient told me that while he was in the hospital he rarely slept because he was in a lot of pain and often was up while the other patients were sleeping. He became quite anxious and was very upset at the fact that he could not work and was in a great deal of pain. He was discharged from the hospital on tapering doses of slow release Oxycodone (Oxycontin®), Gabapentin (Neurontin®) 300 mg bid for neuritic type pain, oral hypoglycemics for noninsulin dependent diabetes, Warfarin sodium, enalaprilat (Vasotec®) for hypertension and other medications. He developed acute cellulitis of the right foot and was readmitted to the hospital 13 days after initial discharge where he remained for 3 more days. He was treated with intravenous cephalo-sporin, intravenous Morphine Sulfate, oral Warfarin Sodium. He was discharged on oral cephalexin (Keflex®) and acetaminophen with codeine. The patient told me that this analgesic did not adequately take care of his pain. He was seen at an outpatient rehab facility for three months. Multiple physical therapy modalities were used. The patient told me that he could not tolerate some of the modalities because it caused increased pain while adequate analgesia was never attained. A Work Conditioning Evaluation/Plan of Care was written. In part it stated that the patient had made “...substantial improvement with work conditioning. However he remains limited in tolerance for ambulation distance due to pain and antalgic gait. The patient is also not safe on ladders and presents with only fair balance on level surfaces.”


He was seen in follow-up and reported that he had ongoing ankle pain after a bimalleolar ankle fracture and had become depressed. As late as 9 months after the accident the patient was noted to have severe right ankle pain but “no orthopedic pathology.” When he presented to my office he was being treated in a Pain Control Clinic where he had been initially seen approximately 10 months post accident. On presentation to my office, he was taking zonisamide (Zonegran®) 100 mg bid for neuritic pain, tramadol with acetaminophen (Ultracet®) for pain (this did not seem to help), Trazadone (Desyrel®) 150 mg at bedtime (this did not help him sleep very much), and rofecoxib (Vioxx®) 12.5 mg. This regimen did not seem to alleviate the pain very much. He was also taking sertraline (Zoloft®), venlafaxine (Effexor®), and Paroxetine (Paxil®)—all for depression. He was also taking medications for diabetes but he had also needed daily insulin injections. Even with the addition of insulin, his blood sugar was rarely controlled. The patient was quite miserable. His activities of daily living were severely affected. He could not work. He rarely left his home which he shared with his mother. His weight fluctuated. His appetite varied. He complained of headaches, fatigue, insomnia, loss of hair, blurry vision, dry mouth, abdominal pain and cramping, constipation alternating with diarrhea, muscle aches and cramps in various muscle groups and muscle weakness. His right leg tended to go out from under him at times. He described himself as being depressed and anxious. He had problems with memory and concentration. He was not sexually active and was quite worried about his condition. He did not seem to be getting any better. In fact, he seemed to be getting worse. Any prolonged sitting, standing, turning, twisting, bending, or lifting caused increased musculoskeletal pain, especially on the right side of his body, particularly his right leg but also his left shoulder area. His low back also gave him a great deal of discomfort. He could not sit for any prolonged period of time. He was very distracted because of pain. One of the most distressing symptoms was this patient’s insomnia. He simply was in too much pain to sleep through the night. When he awakened numerous times in the middle of the night—on the occasions when he did get to sleep—he often had trouble falling back asleep because he was worried and depressed. Consequently, he woke up tired in the morning. In fact, he woke up as tired as when he went to bed. He could not understand why he was not getting medication to help his pain. When he had been given Oxycontin®, the pain was relieved a great deal more, yet now he was only on Ultracet® and 12.5 mg Vioxx® for pain but these medications were not helping. He had been on them for about six months. Neither of these two latter medications was scheduled. He paranoically described himself as someone who was the victim of a conspiracy. He could not understand why he was not getting pain medication that worked.

On a scale of 0 to 10 on a visual analog scale he rated his pain at approximately 9 (10 being unbearable pain). He was fatigued at approximately 9 on a scale of 0 to 10 (10 being severe fatigue). He had much difficulty dressing himself including tying shoelaces and doing buttons and a great deal of difficulty getting in and out of bed. He was unable to walk outdoors on level ground on some days because of the pain and instability of his right leg. On good days, he did so with much difficulty using a cane in his right hand. On bad days, he had much difficulty washing and drying his entire body. He definitely had a great deal of difficulty bending down to pick up clothing from the floor. Getting in and out of a car was very difficult on bad days and somewhat difficult on good days. Weather changes and increased activity definitely caused increased musculoskeletal pain. He described himself as being lightheaded, dizzy, and sometimes losing his balance. I inquired as to whether he had ever been offered a Duragesic® patch (transdermal Fentanyl), a Lidoderm® patch (transdermal lidocaine), Kadian® or Avinza® (forms of long-acting oral morphine). The patient denied knowledge of these medications. He did not have a best time of day; he was always miserable and the pain was “always there.” He was being treated in a mental health setting for “Code 296.22.” The patient told me the code number. He stated that this represented anxiety and depression. The patient also told me he had nightmares. Everything was an effort and he was miserable every day. I asked him if he would be willing to come to see me for treatment. He told me that it was simply too much of an effort and it was hard for him to get a ride to go to the doctor for treatment. He seemed very despondent and depressed when he told me this.

Patient History and Examination

His past medical history was remarkable for having diabetes mellitus diagnosed 9 months prior to the accident. Routine blood tests that he took for employment had revealed this problem and had required hospitalization. Prior to his barge accident, the patient had numerous other medical problems including: a contusion of the right heel, chronic left shoulder pain due to having rotator cuff tendinitis documented on MRI scanning, a question of carpal tunnel syndrome, ulnar compression of the right wrist, and kidney stones treated with lithotripsy. Conspicuous in its absence was any mention of low back musculoskeletal problems prior to the accident.

On examination, this right-handed, white male was noted to be 6’ tall weighing 256 pounds. HEENT examination was remarkable for a flat affect, unkempt hair, and poor dentition. He had markedly decreased range of motion of the cervical spine. He lacked 10 degrees in flexion, lacked 4 degrees in extension, lacked 7 degrees in rotatory motion to the left and 8 degrees in lateral bending to the left compared to the right. There was no alopecia, malar rash, or oral ulcers. Cardiopulmonary exam was remarkable for wheezes and rhonchi. The patient told me that he was presently a smoker but he was not complaining of having a cold or any respiratory symptoms when I saw him. There were no rales or pleural friction rubs. S1 and S2 were heard well. There were no murmurs, thrills, rubs, gallops, or heaves appreciated. Abdominal examination was remarkable for a very large panniculus and lax abdominal musculature. He was globally deconditioned but what struck me was atrophy of the right leg. The patient had 18 of 18 fibromyalgia tender points with pain on palpation of the bilateral occipital, low cervical, trapezius, supraspinatus, second rib, lateral epicondylar, medial knee fat pad, gluteus medius, and greater femoral trochanteric bursal areas with normal controls. He had spasm, myofascial bands and trigger points in numerous muscles including the bilateral trapezius, bilateral levator scapulae, bilateral rhomboids, left quadratus lumborum, left iliocostalis, bilateral multifidus, bilateral gluteus medius, bilateral gluteus minimus areas. He had tautness of the erector spinae muscles of the thoracic and lumbar spine as well as splenious capitis and splenius cervicis regions bilaterally. The patient had a great deal of pain on palpation of the bilateral sacroiliac regions with the presence of bilateral episacroiliac lipomas. Tinel’s Sign was positive bilaterally. Adson’s maneuver was negative bilaterally. Deep tendon reflexes were two plus and equal bilaterally in both the upper and lower extremities as were distal pulses. However he had positive straight leg raising bilaterally at approximately 15 degrees. No vasculitic lesions were noted. There was markedly decreased range of motion of the left shoulder but also some decreased range of motion of the right. He could abduct the right shoulder 84 degrees and the left shoulder 62 degrees. External rotation, internal rotation and adduction were markedly limited on the left and mildly limited on the right. The right knee measured 39.8 cm. The left knee measured 40 cm. Measuring the thighs 10cm above the patella, on the right the thigh measured 50.7cm and the left measured 53cm. Going 15cm above the patella, on the right side the thigh measured 54cm, on the left side 58cm. Mid-calf circumference on the right was 37cm and on the left was 41 cm. The right ankle measured 28cm and the left ankle measured 26.4 cm. The right ankle and foot were very cold compared to the left. There was a dearth of hair growth on both feet, the right being worse than the left. Reactive hyperemia was noted on skin examination of the upper back. The patient had pain on patellar compression much more so on the right than on the left. Blood pressure was noted to be 154/94, pulse rate 86 and regular. The patient was cooperative but appeared somewhat tired and slow moving. The patient had a brownish/blackish scar on the lower outer right foot area below the lateral malleolus measuring 3/4 inches by 2 inches (the site of the chemical burn). There was a well healed scar which was faintly visible on the dorsal aspect of the left foot. The patient had some chronic venous stasis changes on the bilateral lower calves. No bony ankylosis was noted.

Patient Evaluation

This patient had numerous problems. The status of the right ankle—post a bimalleolar fracture—had evolved into reflex sympathetic dystrophy of the right lower leg (complex regional pain syndrome, type 1 or CRPS Type 1). Furthermore, he had chronic lumbar strain as a result of the accident and a chronic problem with the left shoulder which started off as a rotator cuff tendinitis diagnosed prior to the accident but made much worse by the accident. I was concerned that he may actually have had a contracture of the left shoulder joint in addition to a severe adhesive capsulitis of the left shoulder. While he did not fulfill American College of Rheumatology criteria for fibromyalgia6 he certainly had all 18 fibromyalgia tender points. This patient did have an element of diabetic polyneuropathy, but one does not get atrophy of one limb because of diabetic neuropathy. He had right leg atrophy on the basis of several problems including reflex sympathetic dystrophy, chronic lumbar strain/sprain, and myofascial pain syndrome (which is multi-regional in nature). He also had bilateral sacroiliac dysfunction, right worse than left. All of these were the result of the aforementioned accident.

“ It was quite clear to me that this patient’s pain was so severe that it was not being maintained adequately on the medications he was presently taking.“

I reviewed a report of a defense medical evaluation done by a medical doctor who, in my opinion, did not fully appreciate the severity of the patient’s conditions nor the effect it was having on his quality of life. I concluded that this patient was unemployable at his usual job as a tankerman. In fact, it was my professional opinion, to a reasonable degree of medical certainty, that he was totally unemployable for any job in any capacity. He was probably totally and permanently disabled as a result of the injury. Not only did this patient have CRPS Type 1 of the right foot/ankle, his entire right leg was atrophied, he had severe depression, insomnia, and cognitive problems. I attributed the cognitive problems to depression but also to chronic sleep deprivation. His memory and concentration problems were severe and likely due to depression, chronic pain, and insomnia. Therefore it was my professional opinion the patient was 100% totally and permanently disabled from any job or occupation for compensation as a result of the injuries he sustained in the barge accident. It was also my professional opinion that this patient’s injuries were permanent, that is, while symptoms could be helped and the patient’s quality of life could improve, he would require treatment for these injuries for the rest of his life. It was quite clear to me that this patient’s pain was so severe that it was not being maintained adequately on the medications he was presently taking. I suggested to him that he ask his family medical doctor to have him try a Duragesic® patch since I have had a great deal of success with this transdermal opioid delivery system in many of my patients. While I gave him information for this medication, I did not prescribe it for him since he was only seen in my office for an evaluation. I told the patient I would be happy to assume his pain management if he chose to come back and see me.

I wrote to the patient’s attorney that it was clear to me that this patient was in a great deal of pain and that, even worse, he was losing hope. He was not able to sleep. He was very depressed and he told me that he thought that his situation was not going to get any better no matter what he tried. I also noted in my letter to his attorney that he looked about 10 years older than his stated age and that I believed that he was truly suffering greatly and required aggressive pain treatment. While the patient had only been sent to me for an evaluation, I phoned the patient’s attorney who, upon hearing my suggestions, commented that he would be happy to arrange for the patient to come to my office for treatment and I certainly agreed accept him as a patient.

Within a week and much to my surprise, I got a phone call from the patient’s attorney informing me that the patient was found dead in bed. The patient was only 39 years of age. I naturally thought the worst and believed he may have taken his own life, but an autopsy revealed that he had died of “acute coronary thrombosis.” The report further stated that this “was a complication of arterial sclerotic and hypertensive cardiovascular disease.” The medical examiner further wrote that this patient “...most likely would have been able to control his diabetes and hypertension by working out as he used to do before he suffered his devastating injuries. The physical and emotional stress caused by the injuries he sustained...played a significant role in leading to his death...” Moreover, the medical examiner wrote: “His heart disease was significantly worsened by debilitating consequence of the work-related injuries he received.”


This case serves as a reminder that chronic persistent pain, under-treated and uncontrolled, can result in tragedy. This patient was 37 years old prior to his accident. He was gainfully employed and enjoying a good quality of life. Chronic pain can be a tremendous stressor and can affect virtually every organ system of the body. Tennant reviewed the literature and concluded that “Persistent unremitting pain may adversely affect the body’s endocrine, cardiovascular, immune, neurologic and musculoskeletal systems, and require aggressive treatment of the pain as well as the resultant complications.”2 Plotnikov et al,7 in a book published over a decade ago, made a particular point of showing that stress—regardless of the cause (naturally chronic pain can be one such stress)—can have an extremely deleterious affect on the immune system and even lead such patients to have higher risks of developing malignancies.

One common chronic painful condition, fibromyalgia syndrome (FS),8 for example, has been associated with adult growth hormone deficiency characterized by low levels of somatomedin-C or insulin dependent growth factor one (IGF-1) and altered reactivity of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis,9,10 as well as a poor overall quality of life.11 Low levels of IGF-1 have been associated with an increased risk of heart failure in some patients12 as well as other serious health problems likely to negatively affect longevity.13,14,15 Furthermore, FS patients may have a higher risk of developing other disorders ranging from osteoporosis16 to malignancies.17 This is not surprising since widespread body pain has been associated with an increased risk of cancer as well as reduced cancer survival.16 This particular patient suffered greatly. His chronic pain went undertreated and thus initiated a cascade of other problems which eventually led to his premature death at the age of thirty-nine. An argument might be made that the patient’s use of Vioxx® (rofecoxib) contributed to his demise since Vioxx® was voluntarily withdrawn by its manufacturer, Merck, in October, 2004 after it was learned that there was an increased relative risk for adverse cardiovascular events such as myocardial infarction. These adverse effects, however, were only confirmed to occur in patients who had been taking the medication for at least eighteen months. This was not the case with the patient who is the subject of this report. Review of medical records revealed that he was taking the lowest dose of Vioxx® (12.5 mg) for a maximum period of less than six months.

The ineffectiveness of codeine in treating this patient’s pain may have, in part, been due to its not being converted to morphine-like analogs which might have been effective. A small percentage of the population cannot make this conversion. However, even if the codeine preparation was adequately processed, pain relief would have been of only a short duration. Clearly this patient’s painful condition required an analgesic with a long half-life. Oxycontin® did seem to work the best of all the analgesics tried but it was discontinued. The medical records give no reason for this. However, prescribing long-acting opioids over an extended period of time does place the clinician in the unenviable position of being scrutinized by the medical board and/or regulatory agencies such as the Federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). In my community, many physicians avoid prescribing controlled substances for just that reason. Furthermore, more is expected of clinicians in the area of risk management and prevention of diversion of controlled substances.19 This reluctance to prescribe opioids extends not only to the types of medications but the doses as well.

The fear of “over prescribing” opioids may deter physicians from providing enough medication to adequately control pain. This fear, while palpable in my community, is without foundation if the physician is prescribing opioids for a patient whose painful condition is well documented and the prescriber exercises due diligence in his care of the patient. In support of this assertion, I refer to a publication of the European Federation of Chapters of the IASP. In part, it states, “No upper limit of dose of pure opioid agonist can be established.”4 One must titrate for effect in order to optimize analgesic effect while minimizing side effects. The fear and embarassment at being manipulated and hoodwinked by drug-seeking addicts may also be a factor in the under-treatment of pain. However, this does not relieve the physician of his obligation to ease the suffering of his patient. According to the public policy statement of the American Society of Addiction Medicine, “Physicians who are practicing medicine in good faith and who use reasonable medical judgment regarding the prescribing of opioids for the treatment of pain should not be held responsible for the deceptive behavior of patients who successfully obtain opioids for non medical purposes.”21


Every prudent and caring physician has been in the precarious position of balancing patient care and risk prevention. The practitioner must keep in mind state and federal law while, at the same time, fulfill what he believes to be his duty to his patient. Adequate analgesia can usually be attained. While the clinician must be wary and take appropriate precautions, he/she must also not withhold opioids when a patient clearly needs them to control pain and regain sufficient functionality to regain control of his life.

Because chronic pain syndromes are quite common and these medical conditions can cause significant systemic stress and adversely affect the quality of life, the clinician should treat pain aggressively as early as possible. The longer one waits to adequately get chronic pain under control, the more likely the body will decompensate and cascade into other significant medical problems affecting the endocrine, cardiovascular, immune, neurologic and/or musculoskeletal systems. This case report is a reminder of what can happen if chronic pain is not treated successfully. Can pain kill? You be the judge.

Last updated on: February 26, 2013
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