Patients, Power, Participation: How Enrolling in Clinical Trials Can Help Ensure That The Future of Pain Medicine is Now

Clinical trials

This piece has been entered in the Patients Have Power Writing Contest run by Clara Health designed to raise awareness about clinical trials.

“It’s a USB port for your brain, and it’s going to help you manage your fibromyalgia pain.” Imagine your doctor explaining this to you at your next appointment. She hands you the device – it looks like a headband with an electrode in the centre. “When the electrode makes contact with your forehead, it stimulates a nerve that connects directly with parts of the brain which regulate your nervous system. By wearing it twice a day for 20 minutes, your pain will be reduced and your mood will improve.” No drugs. No side effects.

Does this sound like science fiction? Amazingly, it may soon be a reality, thanks to a new clinical trial being conducted at the University of Cincinnati on an external Trigeminal Nerve Stimulation device. Research on these this device has shown positive results already for migraine, depression and PTSD.

Or how about sitting in a chair, drinking a cup of coffee, while a coil placed against the side of your head directs magnetic waves at areas deep inside your brain that are affected by fibromyalgia? This is called transcranial magnetic stimulation, and recent clinical studies have found significant pain reduction in people with fibromyalgia after twenty sessions spread over one month. These are just some of the next generation treatments for chronic pain currently being studied.

Since my diagnosis six years ago, I have tried dozens of treatments, prescribed by multiple specialists, with very limited results. I’m still unable to work full-time because of my chronic pain. The possibility that a new device, strategy or medication could reduce my pain so significantly that I could regain my activity levels seems like a dream just out of reach. I know that I’m not alone in this experience.

Given how critical it is for there to be safe and effective treatments for chronic pain, conducting new research has never been more urgent. I believe it is vitally important that people living with chronic conditions understand the research process and learn how they can advocate and participate in it, so that one day we can realize a world where chronic pain is easily treatable.

Participating in Research Trials: How to Ensure that the Future is Now

Treatment trials are necessary to get the gold stamp of approval for new medical interventions from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Research proves that a new drug or approach is effective and safe. This validation is necessary for doctors to find out about new treatments and for insurance companies to cover the costs.

Ultimately, the only way that new treatments can be developed is if patients join clinical trials. Participating in medical research is the most proactive way patients can contribute to improving how fibromyalgia is understood and treated. Personally, I find the thought of channeling my frustration at the lack of treatment options and taking action by enrolling in a research study exciting and empowering.

Participants in clinical trials have the opportunity to access cutting-edge therapies before they are made widely available, often at leading medical facilities. Experimental treatments can be appealing to individuals who have failed to benefit from conventional treatments. There is no cost to participate in medical research and health insurance is not required. Additionally, some studies compensate individuals who join the clinical trial.

What Safeguards Are in Place to Protect Participants During the Research Process?

Many people are reluctant to consider enrolling in clinical trials because they worry about the safety of being a research “guinea pig”. This is a natural response when confronted with the unknowns of a new treatment. When I did my own research into the safety of clinical trials, I was reassured by the rigorous process that is in place to protect patients. It’s important to be aware that all experimental treatments come with the risk of side effects – and these can range from unpleasant to life-threatening, depending on the nature of the medical intervention being studied. You should discuss any potential treatment trials you are considering enrolling in with your healthcare provider first!

Before a study can be conducted, it has to be assessed by an Institutional Review Board, which is made up of doctors and laypersons. They evaluate the design of the study to ensure that participants have their rights protected and are not exposed to undue risk.

In order to participate in a treatment trial, you must give informed consent. This means you have had the purpose and process of the study explained to you, including any and all potential risks, and that you understand you can leave the study any time.

When you think of clinical trials, you probably think of pharmaceutical drugs. But, did you know that many clinical trials focus on alternative and complementary therapies (like massage or acupuncture), mind/body therapies (like meditation), lifestyle changes (like exercise) and medical devices? Some people may be interested in participating in research studying these non-drug pain management strategies (like these arthritis clinical trials that don’t explore new drugs).

However, research on new pharmaceutical drugs is required to follow a lengthy series of trials and evaluations – actually more so than for any other medical intervention. New medications are only tested in human participants after years of research on tissues from animals and human cells, followed by testing in animal subjects to evaluate safety. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reviews this data before approving human testing of a new pharmaceutical. Clinical trials involving human participants must progress through three phases of testing before the FDA approves a new medication for widespread use. It’s no wonder that it takes years for new treatments to get approved!

Phase 1 – healthy volunteers are administered the medication in order to evaluate the safety of the medication on the liver, kidneys and other organs

Phase 2 – a group of participants who live with the targeted condition are administered the medication in order to assess its efficacy

Phase 3 – large-scale trials are conducted in order to demonstrate that the medication offers statistically significant benefits for the particular disorder, as well as assess its safety profile and adverse side effects

I hope that by having a better understanding of the research process, and the safeguards that are in place to protect participants, people living with poorly understood and undertreated conditions like fibromyalgia will consider joining clinical trials. It’s a very personal decision, and may not be right for everyone. But those who do participate will be helping others by contributing to new insights and better treatments for chronic illnesses. If you are interested in learning more about participating in clinical trials, or looking for research studies recruiting volunteers in your area check out Clara Health, https://www.clinicaltrials.gov/ or http://www.centerwatch.com/.

References

Cort Johnson. (2016). ‘Coils, Lasers and USB Ports to the Brain: the Fibromyalgia Clinical Trials Overview.’ Health Rising. Retrieved June 1 2018 https://www.healthrising.org/blog/2016/12/17/fibromyalgia-clinical-trials-overview-2017/

NFMCPA. (n.d.) What are Clinical Trials and What to Consider about Participating. Retrieved June 1 2018 https://www.fmcpaware.org/what-are-clinical-trials-and-what-to-consider-about-participating

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Real Life with Chronic Illness: Inspirational Blog Posts from Spring 2017

Real Life with Chronic Illness: Inspirational Blog Posts from Spring 2017

How reading chronic illness blogs helps me navigate life with chronic illness

Living with a chronic illness can feel isolating. How many people do you know who even have a chronic illness? Our daily challenges are unique, and it can be difficult to find someone who really understands.. Even when it comes to positive changes, I find that friends and family can have a difficult time relating to the treatments or lifestyle changes that I’ve made in order to improve my health and well-being. For example, starting a meditation practice or taking supplements was considered equivalent to fraudulent ‘snake-oil treatments’  by some of my more skeptical relatives. Even more broadly, living with chronic illness changes your perspective on life and your priorities. While you might see working towards acceptance as part of healing, other people around you might see it as ‘giving up’ on getting better. For all of these reasons, it can be difficult to find your way through the realities of life with a chronic illness

This is where the community of chronic illness bloggers comes in. Reading about shared experiences can help reduce that sense of isolation –– knowing other people out there can relate to what you are going through. Chronic illness blogs can help to suggest treatments or self-care strategies, which is important given the lack of research, medical treatments or adequate pain management supports out there. Most importantly, chronic illness blogs can inspire their readers with the wisdom of experience and the power of insight.

Here, I wanted to share a few of the inspiring posts I read this spring about navigating real life with chronic illness:

Inspiring blog posts from Spring, 2017

 

You are miracle.
You are harmony.
You are 90 trillion cells weaving new tapestry.
Each one testifies to the mystery
That even on the worst day
Even at your worst
You are still your best
You are miracle

  • The Beauty of the Story Your Life Is Telling by Stacey from Chronically Whole An inspiring take on the narrative of being a person living with chronic illness. My favourite lines: “Some may say it’s telling a story of failing by not getting better faster [but]… Let your life keep telling the story of adapting, overcoming, loving in spite of loss, being unafraid  to face the uncertain future head on…”

 

  • What can fairy tales teach us about living with chronic illness? That we have to be our own heroes, for one.  Rhiann, from My Brain Lesion and Me, writes:  “My experience of living with a permanent neurological condition has also taught me that we all have the power to rescue ourselves from our own battles in whatever form that they take.” Read more at Life is Anything But a Fairy Tale. 

 

A Tale of Two Types of Laparoscopic Surgery to Treat Endometriosis

A TALE OF TWO TYPES OF LAPAROSCOPIC SURGERY TO TREAT ENDOMETRIOSIS

 Learn about the most effective type of laparoscopy for endometriosis.

Last summer I had an appointment with my OB-GYN to figure out the next step for treating my internal pelvic pain, which she suspected was caused by endometriosis.  The pain had significantly ramped up in recent months and was virtually constant.  My OB-GYN recommended having a laparoscopy, which she described as a minimally invasive surgery to diagnose and removed endometriosis lesions that might be present in my pelvis.  I left that appointment believing that there was only one type of laparoscopic surgery to treat endometriosis.

I was wrong.

The procedure I finally had this past winter (after months of waiting), with a type of laparoscopy called ablation or coagulation. During this procedure, endometrial lesions are burned away with a high energy heat source, usually a laser. This is the most common type of laparoscopy for endometriosis. Three months after having the surgery, my chronic pelvic pain has never been worse. Ablation was not effective for treating my endometriosis.

However, there is a second kind of laparoscopy for treating endometriosis, called excision. This procedure is less common than ablation, requires more skill, and is more time-consuming.

“Excision removes endometrial implants by cutting them away from the surrounding tissue with scissors, a very fine heat gun or a laser beam…Excision allows the gynaecologist to separate the implants from the surrounding tissue, thus ensuring that the entire implant is removed and no endometrial tissue is left.”[i]

The most important difference between these two types of laparoscopic surgeries, according to a new study, is that excision is more effective than the ablation.[ii]  Researchers compared three recent studies that examined the outcomes of ablation versus excision laparoscopies for treating endometriosis.  They found that excision laparoscopies, compared to ablation, resulted in:

  • a significant reduction in painful periods
  • a significant reduction in chronic pelvic pain
  • a significant reduction in straining with bowel movements
  • a non-significant reduction in painful sex

The researchers concluded that their review “showed significantly greater improvement with laparoscopic excision compared with ablation” in the treatment of endometriosis. I wish I’d known last summer. Now I’m beginning the long process of being referred for excision surgery.

What I Wish I Knew Before Having a Laparoscopy to Treat Endometriosis

[i] http://endometriosis.org/treatments/endometriosis-surgery/

[ii] Pundir, J., & Omanwa, K. (2017, April 26). Laparoscopic excision versus ablation for endometriosis-associated pain – Updated systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Minimally Invasive Gynecologyhttp://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1553465017302637

Evidence for New Fibro Drug Therapies: Options to Take to Your Doctor if Your Current Treatments aren’t Working

Evidence for New Fibro Drug Therapies: Options to Take to Your Doctor if You Current Treatments aren't Working

New research into drug therapies helps people with fibromyalgia increase their treatment options. Learning about these new medication options can help you and your doctor you find the best treatment regimen for you.

If you live with fibromyalgia, you know firsthand that one of the primary features of this condition is a lower pain threshold compared to healthy people. There are a number of changes in the body caused by fibromyalgia that increase our sensitivity to pain. One set of changes affect how the spinal cord relays pain sensations from the body to the brain. Several drugs target specific receptors, called NMDA receptors, which are located in deep spinal neurons that carry sensory information to regions in the brain that relate to pain processing. NMDA receptors are activated by signals relayed to the spinal cord by peripheral neurons that sense pressure in muscles, tendons, etc. This type of receptor is activated by the neurotransmitter glutamate. Studies have shown elevated levels of glutamate in the brain and spinal cord of patients with fibromyalgia.[i] There is a strong correlation between elevated glutamate and increased pain in people with fibromyalgia. NMDA receptors can amplify pain signals in patients with fibromyalgia because they are activated to a greater degree by the presence of increased glutamate concentrations in the brain/spinal cord, which trigger pain signals sent to the brain by the deep spinal neurons.

NMDA receptors can be prevented from firing by certain compounds. Two drugs in particular seem effective at decreasing NDMDA receptor activation. One is called memantine. Memantine blocks NMDA receptors and decreases glutamate levels. “A randomised, double-blind study in 63 patients with fibromyalgia compared memantine… with placebo over a 6-month period. Compared to placebo there was a significant reduction in pain and pain threshold and improvement in global function, mood and quality of life”.[ii] Memantine was originally developed to treat diabetes, but has also been used to treat dementia; it has been found to also be effective in treating chronic regional pain syndrome.

Ketamine is another potent NMDA receptor blocker (yes, the illegal party drug). Studies have shown that it can effectively reduce pain for a subset of fibromyalgia patients “Thus, of 58 patients with fibromyalgia in the above 3 studies, 33 (57%) responded to low dose ketamine (0.3mg / kg) infusion, as defined by a reduction of pain by 50% or more.”[iii] However, studies have not adequately investigated long term use of ketamine. However, ketamine has been proven effective in treating chronic regional pain syndrome, which shares many similar characteristics to fibromyalgia.

Another interesting tip focuses on diet changes that can help lower pain levels. Glutamate is found in MSG (monosodium glutamate). Other related compounds, called excitotoxins, like aspartame, can cause harmful over-activity in the brain. “One study showed that 4 weeks of exclusion of monosodium glutamate (MSG), aspartame, and other excitotoxins, resulted in over 30% improvement in fibromyalgia symptoms in 84% of those who completed the diet”.[iv]

What about inflammation and fibromyalgia? A number of studies have found increased levels of pro-inflammatory messengers (called cytokines) in blood collected from FM patients.[v]  A drug called low-dose naltrexone has been investigated for its potential benefits in treating fibromyalgia because of its anti-inflammatory properties.[vi] Naltrexone is primarily used to treat opioid overdoses, but when taken at a low dose before bed, studies have found a statistically significant reduction in FM pain compared to the placebo. A recent study found that “after eight weeks of LDN administration, plasma levels of a range of broadly pro-inflammatory cytokines were decreased. In addition, we found that participants reported less pain and symptoms following LDN. Combined, these results support the hypothesis that LDN may help chronic pain conditions, such as fibromyalgia, by acting as an atypical anti-inflammatory medication”.[vii] Pain reduction was found to be 15% and symptom reduction 18%. While these results are modest, for many FM patients desperate for options, low-dose naltrexone could be a valuable part of their treatment regimen.

Evidence for New Fibro Drug Therapies: Options to Take to Your Doctor if You Current Treatments aren't Working

Works Cited

Littlejohn, G., & Guymer, E. (2017). Modulation of NMDA Receptor Activity in Fibromyalgia. Biomedicines 5 (5), 15-27.

Parkitny, L., & Younger, J. (2017). Reduced Pro-Inflammatory Cytokines after Eight Weeks of Low-Dose Naltrexone for Fibromyalgia. Biomedicines 5 (2), 16.

Ross, R., Jones, K., Bennett, R., Ward, R., Druker, B., & Wood, L. (2010). Preliminary Evidence of Increased Pain and Elevated Cytokines in Fibromyalgia Patients with Defective Growth Hormone Response to Exercise. Open Immunol J, 3, 9-18.

Citations

[i] (Littlejohn & Guymer, 2017)

[ii] (Littlejohn & Guymer, 2017)

[iii] (Littlejohn & Guymer, 2017)

[iv] (Littlejohn & Guymer, 2017)

[v] (Ross, Jones, Bennett, Ward, Druker, & Wood, 2010)

[vi] (Parkitny & Younger, 2017)

[vii] (Parkitny & Younger, 2017)

Could a Treatment for Herpes also be Effective for Treating Fibromyalgia?

Could a treatment for herpes also be effective for treating fibromyalgia?A recent study investigated whether it would be effective to  treat fibromyalgia patients with an anti-viral and anti-inflammatory drug combination that is normally used to treat the herpes virus (cold sores or genital herpes). The anti-viral drug used in this study also treats the shingles virus (which additionally causes chickenpox). Specifically, researchers tested a famciclovir + celecoxib drug combination called IMC-1. The study was based on the hypothesis that life stressors could re-activate latent viral infections  (viral infections from earlier in life that become dormant), which in turn cause fibromyalgia to develop. This hypothesis is based on anecdotal evidence of patients who develop fibromyalgia after experiencing infections and/or periods of stress. Does that sound familiar?

The results of this double-blind, placebo-controlled study were positive: participants receiving the anti-virals had significantly less pain and fatigue compared to participants who received a placebo. Encouragingly, IMC-1 was well tolerated by study participants, with few side-effects. Researchers concluded that the effectiveness of the anti-viral drugs suggests that the herpes virus may play a role in the development of fibromyalgia for some patients. Interestingly, this conclusion was based on the efficacy of the drug rather than testing the study participants for the herpes virus. I wonder whether this line of investigation could be expanded to include other potential viral triggers.

This hypothesis resonates with me because in the months before I developed fibromyalgia, I had a mumps infection, which I always attributed as a trigger for the onset of my fibromyalgia. In addition, I have had shingles, which the anti-viral used in the study also treats. This is a fascinating new area of research that will hopefully provide more answers and solutions to the treatment of fibromyalgia. In the meantime, if you have the herpes virus (or other significant viral infection) and fibromyalgia, I recommend taking this study to your doctor to see if IMC-1 might be an effective option for you!

Reference:

Pridgen, W. et al. (2017). A famciclovir + celecoxib combination treatment is safe and efficacious in the treatment of fibromyalgia. J. Pain Res., 10, 451-460. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5328426/