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Older Adults and Opioid Alternatives: Non-Drug Answers Sought to Ease Pain

Liz Seegert April 30, 2018

Experts are promoting physical therapy, telehealth and other strategies as opioid alternatives to address the growing problem of addiction among older individuals with chronic pain.

Public health officials and addiction specialists are concerned about the growing prevalence of opioid use among older adults. A quarter of long-term opioid users are over age 60. So, experts are increasingly looking outside Medicare for non-drug strategies to ease pain.

Physical therapy, telehealth services, acupuncture and yoga are all effective strategies to ease chronic pain in older adults, while avoiding the dangers of over-using opioids.

Older People Have Unique Medication Needs

Approximately half of community dwelling older adults and most residents of nursing facilities report persistent pain. They often juggle multiple providers and multiple health problems, seeking pain relief from surgeries or conditions like osteoporosis, arthritis or fibromyalgia.

Opioids have a stronger impact on this population, because aging affects how the body processes and excretes drugs. Older adults also tend to be on multiple medications, which can interact with pain medications and cause serious side effects.

They are more likely to use prescription opioids for longer periods than younger adults, increasing risk of misuse and abuse, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

In 2016, more than a third of Medicare Part D beneficiaries, or about 14.4 million people, had at least one opioid prescription, and a half-million seniors used very high amounts of the drug, according to a report by the Office of the Inspector General at the Department of Health and Human Services.

Yet many older patients do not realize they are addicted until their prescriptions run out, according to Edward Harper, a licensed clinical social worker and a drug and alcohol counselor in Knoxville, Tenn. “Then, if they can’t get their meds refilled right away, they go into withdrawal, and suddenly, there’s an epidemic,” he said.

Opioid alternatives to manage pain are gaining interest, including acupuncture, yoga and massage, said Dr. Wayne Jonas, a family physician and former head of the Office of Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health.

Barriers to Accessing Opioid Alternatives

Crucial supports for older individuals are often lacking, however. Even for those seeking alternatives strategies, barriers like accessibility and cost make non-drug pain management approaches difficult to implement.

Traditional Medicare does not typically pay for non-drug therapies to address pain. Or it imposes limits, despite recommendations by the American College of Physicians, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Food and Drug Administration. That leaves many seniors on the hook for the total cost.

Even covered services can be difficult to access. For example, physical therapy is a proven pain management strategy. Medicare may offer some reimbursement. Yet, many older adults may depend on family or friends to drive them to physical therapy. That limits their options, especially if they need to go three or four days a week, Harper explained. And public transit is limited or non-existent in some regions—particularly rural areas.

Growing Private Sector Solutions

The good news is that the private sector may be starting to take notice. Some businesses are starting to provide more options and access for opioid alternatives.

Ride sharing services Uber and Lyft are partnering with physician offices, hospitals, clinics and therapists to get patients to and from appointments. The facility or practice picks up the cost of the ride.

Often, assisted living communities bring in physicians, nurses, and therapists so residents don’t have to travel. Others offer therapies like meditation, dance or yoga.

Health IT is also well positioned to address the access and cost challenges of opioid alternatives. Medicare and other insurers do pay for certain telehealth services. And older people can fins other complementary services online for little to no cost.

“Online behavioral counseling, physical therapy, yoga or meditation could supplement in-person care,” Harper said. He envisions more opportunities for Internet-based, patient-centered, personalized care—from nutrition counseling to stress management. This strategy would fill in some of the gaps in care and mitigate costs. It would also allow physicians to monitor prescription adherence and expand recovery support programs to those who develop addictions.

It’s all out there in the Internet, he said. “With us becoming much more of a digital society, we can do that, we can do e-training, we can do e-physical therapy and take a telemedicine approach.”

He also thinks opportunities abound for personalized care through virtual reality technology. “If somebody can provide it for them, there will be options out there to do something different.”

These ideas are particularly relevant for the Baby Boomers and the age group just behind them, who are comfortable with digital solutions. Innovative strategies like these are adjunct opportunities to help people remain in treatment, obtain counseling and reduce dependence on opioids.

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Liz Seegert

Liz Seegert is an independent health journalist based in New York City. She writes about aging, boomers, policy and related topics for online, print and broadcast media, and also co-produces the HealthCetera podcast.

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