Pain is what many people say they fear most about dying and is routinely undertreated. Joint Commission reviews of healthcare organizations now include pain management standards.
^ Barriers to Good Care
Deficiencies in pain management at the end of life have been documented in many settings. Some clinicians refer pain management to others when they believe that a patient’s pain is not due to the disease for which they are treating the patient. Even oncologists often misperceive the origin of their patients’ pain and inappropriately ignore complaints of pain.
Many clinicians have limited training and clinical experience with pain management and thus are understandably reluctant to attempt to manage severe pain. Lack of knowledge about the proper selection and dosing of analgesic medications carries with it attendant and typically exaggerated fears about the side effects of pain medications, including the possibility of respiratory depression from opioids. Most clinicians, however, can develop good pain management skills, and nearly all pain, even at the end of life, can be managed without hastening death through respiratory depression. In rare instances, palliative sedation may be necessary to control intractable suffering as an intervention of last resort.
A misunderstanding of the physiologic effects of opioids can lead to unfounded concerns on the part of clinicians, patients, or family members that patients will become addicted to opioids. While physiologic tolerance (requiring increasing dosage to achieve the same analgesic effect) and dependence (requiring continued dosing to prevent symptoms of medication withdrawal) are expected with regular opioid use, the use of opioids at the end of life for relief of pain and dyspnea is not generally associated with a risk of psychological addiction (misuse of a substance for purposes other than one for which it was prescribed and despite negative consequences in health, employment, or legal and social spheres). The risk for problematic use of pain medications is higher, however, in patients with a history of addiction. Yet even patients with such a history need pain relief, albeit with closer monitoring. Some patients who demonstrate behaviors associated with addiction (demand for specific medications and doses, anger and irritability, poor cooperation or disturbed interpersonal reactions) may have pseudo-addiction, defined as exhibiting behaviors associated with addiction but only because their pain is inadequately treated.