Adequate Pain Control Is A Human Right

Adequate Pain Control Is A Human Right

If bad drivers rather than cars are responsible for most road deaths, why blame morphine and ignore bad prescribers?


Adequate Pain Control Is A Human Right

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A growing international consensus urges change in several areas toward the goal of recognizing effective treatment for pain as a fundamental human right, according to a special article in the July issue of Anesthesia & Analgesia, the official publication of the International Anesthesia Research Society.



Newswise — A growing international consensus urges change in several areas—including increased availability of controlled medications such as opioids—toward the goal of recognizing effective treatment for pain as a fundamental human right, according to a special article in the July issue of Anesthesia & Analgesia, the official publication of the International Anesthesia Research Society and published by Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, a part of Wolters Kluwer Health.

Dr. Frank Brennan of Calvary Hospital in Kogarah, N.S.W., Australia and colleagues summarize the medical, legal, and ethical arguments for transforming access to pain management into a global human right. They write, "Medicine is at an inflection point, at which a coherent international consensus is emerging: the unreasonable failure to treat pain is poor medicine, unethical practice, and is an abrogation of a fundamental right."

Inadequate pain treatment is an entrenched problem around the world, related to cultural, societal, religious, and political factors—including, the authors believe, the acceptance of torture. Poorly controlled pain has many and potentially serious adverse effects, both physical and psychological, as well as "massive social and economic costs to society," Dr. Brennan and coauthors write. Cancer pain is a special concern, with up to 70 percent of cancer patients experiencing severe pain caused by their disease or its treatment.

Contributors to inadequate management of pain from cancer and other causes include "opiophobia and opioignorance": fear and ignorance of the strong pain medications classified as opioids—morphine and related drugs. For physicians, a lack of training in the proper use of opioids is compounded by rare but highly publicized cases in which doctors are prosecuted for opioid prescribing.

The authors outline the "complex and overlapping" reasons for delay in recognizing the ethical and legal importance of pain management. Although pain relief is clearly a core value of medical ethics, the legal foundation for a right to pain management is less clear. Frustrated with the slow pace of change, many pain medicine professionals are promoting legislative solutions. Some governments, notably including Australia and the state of California, have passed statutes explicitly defining the right to adequate pain management, protecting medical practitioners who treat pain in terminally ill patients, or introducing requirements for pain management and education.

Laws related to medical negligence, elder abuse, and public interest litigation all have ramifications for promoting adequate pain treatment, as do standards for pain management developed by professional organizations. Other approaches look to international law, including the United Nations (UN) covenants regarding human rights.

Since pain is an international problem, the World Health Organization (WHO), as the UN's supreme health agency, is likely to play a critical role in any solution. The WHO's previous efforts in the areas of cancer pain relief and palliative care have had a major impact on pain treatment around the world. Building on these successes, the WHO is spearheading efforts toward deregulating the availability of medical opioids and making these powerful pain-reducing drugs more affordable for poor countries.

Dr. Brennan and colleagues call on the UN to consider declaring an International Year of Pain Management, and on the WHO and other international bodies to create a single organization unifying all aspects of obligation on national governments in the area of pain control. "Much work and continuing vigilance will be required to make the transition from asserting that pain management is a fundamental human right, to a future in which appropriate pain management is a global reality," the authors conclude.

An accompanying editorial, Willem Scholten, PharmD, MPA, and colleagues at the WHO summarize their organization's role in "freeing people from the shackles of pain." A centerpiece of the WHO's efforts is its Access to Controlled Medications Program (ACMP). The ACMP seeks to remove barriers to appropriate use of controlled medications through legislative and administrative initiatives, education for health care and law enforcement professionals, improved understanding of international drug control treaties, and measures to ensure a steady supply of controlled medications at controlled prices. "The human suffering due to lack of pain relief is an affront to human dignity," Dr. Sholten and colleagues write. "WHO, through its ACMP, will support governments in the realization of their obligation under the right to 'the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health.’”


About Lippincott Williams & Wilkins
Lippincott Williams & Wilkins ( is a leading international publisher for healthcare professionals and students with nearly 300 periodicals and 1,500 books in more than 100 disciplines publishing under the LWW brand, as well as content-based sites and online corporate and customer services. LWW is part of Wolters Kluwer Health, a leading provider of information for professionals and students in medicine, nursing, allied health, pharmacy and the pharmaceutical industry. Wolters Kluwer Health is a division of Wolters Kluwer, a leading global information services and publishing company with annual revenues (2006) of €3.7 billion and approximately 19,900 employees worldwide. Visit

About the International Anesthesia Research Society
The International Anesthesia Research Society (IARS) is a not-for-profit medical society founded in 1922 to foster progress and research in all phases of anesthesia. The IARS is completely nonpolitical, focused only on the advancement and support of education and scientific research related to anesthesiology and pain management. The motto on the IARS logo since 1922 has been “We strive always for world conquest of pain.” The IARS has a world-wide membership of 15,000 physicians and others with doctoral degrees. For more information, contact


Adequate Pain Control Is A Human Right

If bad drivers rather than cars are responsible for most road deaths, why blame morphine and ignore bad prescribers?

Claud Regnard FRCP, Newcastle Hospitals NHS Trust, Northumberland Tyne & Wear NHS Trust, and St. Oswald’s

Hospice, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Presented to the House of Lords All party Committee on Dying Well, 7th November, 2006


In early 2006 Clive Seale published an anonymous survey

of UK doctors that was widely but selectively reported in

the media.1 There was little mention in the media of the

very low rates reported by UK doctors of voluntary

euthanasia (0.16%), involuntary euthanasia (0.33%) with

no mention of the fact that none of the doctors surveyed

had been involved in patient assisted suicide. In contrast,

much was made of the 33% of UK doctors who reported

their belief that they had possibly shortened life of patients

by a few days during treatment for the alleviation of

symptoms. Despite statements trying to clarify the facts,2

the article was interpreted as demonstrating that UK

doctors were already shortening lives, and it was suggested

that legalisation of patient assisted suicide was an obvious

and necessary next step.3

Of the 94% of specialists in palliative care who opposed

any change in the law,4 many were puzzled by the belief of

so many doctors that they had shortened patients’ lives

while treating symptoms. This was not the experience of

specialists treating symptoms at the end of life.

How do UK doctors compare with other countries?

Since his first paper Seale has carried out a further analysis

of his survey data.5 He points out that those who argue for

euthanasia claim that prohibition results in secretive

medical decision-making. In contrast, those against

legalization are concerned about the permissiveness leading

to an inappropriate readiness to shorten life. Seale suggests

that the optimum situation is one where the underlying

inhibitions about inappropriately shortening life exist with

high levels of shared decision-making

Seale compared UK doctors with permissive countries

(ie those that allow PAS and/or euthanasia- Netherlands,

Switzerland, Belgium) and non-permissive countries

(ie. those where PAS and euthanasia are not legal- Italy,

Sweden, Denmark). He found that UK doctors had the

following characteristics:

UK doctors are particularly cautious about decisions to

shorten life.

UK doctors are more open than non-permissive

countries in their openness about discussing end-of-life

decisions (ELD) with patients and relatives.

UK doctors are the same or more likely than doctors in

permissive countries to report discussions on ELD with

medical and nursing colleagues.

Seale concluded that UK doctors do exhibit that ‘optimum’

situation with

- a particularly cautious approach towards shortening life

- a high level of shared decision-making.

Dutch public attitudes

Rietjens and colleagues surveyed the attitudes of the Dutch

public towards euthanasia, terminal sedation and increasing

doses of opioids.6 The characteristics that the Dutch public

considered to be important for a good death were: saying

goodbye to loved ones (94%), dying with dignity (92%),

and dying free of pain (87%). Fear of being a burden was

more important than control and the authors point out that a

previous study showed 17% of euthanasia patients were

uncomfortable about burdening relatives.

These attitudes were similar for euthanasia, terminal

sedation and high dose opioids, suggesting that they

viewed these as equivalent approaches (see Fig 1).

Fig 1: issues of importance for the Dutch public in those

accepting euthanasia, terminal sedation or high dose morphine.

From Rietjens et al 6














Dignity No pain No





Accept sedation

Accept high dose



Paradoxical beliefs about opioids & sedatives

33% of UK doctors believe they had possibly shortened

life during alleviation of symptoms.1

UK doctors are particularly cautious about shortening


Palliative care physicians are not faced with the

dilemma of relieving symptoms at the risk of shortening


Dutch public equate high dose morphine and sedation

with euthanasia.6

Doctors are secretly killing patients.3

Shipman was convicted of giving 30 times an

acceptable dose of diamorphine.7

Two North East doctors have been acquitted of charges

after using a starting dose of morphine or diamorphine up

to 60 times higher than would be used in palliative care. 8, 9

Acquittal was on the basis of the defence of double-effect.


This is based on an 800 year old principle. It states that the

unintended, harmful effect of an action is defensible (e.g.

an early death) if

1. The nature of the act is itself good (e.g. the relief of pain

and distress)

2. The intention is for the good effect and not the bad

3. The good effect outweighs the bad effect in a situation

that is sufficiently grave to merit the risk of that bad effect

(e.g. overwhelming suffering in a dying patient)

4. The good effect (the symptom relief) is not through the

bad effect (eg. death)

How safe are opioids and sedatives? A world view

Morphine and sedatives do not hasten death

UK- Double doses of bedtime morphine did not increase

overnight deaths.10

UK- Sedative dose increases were not associated with

shortened survival (n=237).11

Australia - No link between doses of opioids,

benzodiazepines or haloperidol and survival.12

Opioids & sedatives do not hasten death in dying


Taiwan - Giving morphine to treat breathlessness on

admission and in last 48hrs did not affect survival.13

Japan - The survival of patients of high dose opioids and

sedatives in last 48hrs was the same as those not on such


USA - After ventilator withdrawal, opioids did not speed

death, while benzodiazepines resulted in longer survival


Morphine does not hasten death in elderly, breathless

patients or those with poor lung function

Switzerland - Morphine given to elderly patients for

breathlessness showed no effect on respiratory function

(n=9, randomised controlled trial).16

UK - The respiratory rate was not changed by morphine

given for breathlessness to patients with poor respiratory

function (n=15).17

Canada - Injections of morphine given subcutaneously to

patients with restrictive respiratory failure did not change

their respiratory rate, respiratory effort, arterial oxygen

level, or end-tidal carbon dioxide levels.18

Opioids are ineffective euthanasia agents

Netherlands - Opioids are not considered ‘standard’ drugs

for euthanasia with reported use reducing by half from

1995 to 2001.19

Using morphine and diamorphine safely.

In palliative care the aim is always to relieve symptoms

while minimising mild to moderate adverse effects, and

avoiding serious adverse effects.

Starting doses: a person who has never been on analgesics

would be started on oral morphine 2.5 – 5mg 4-hourly (or

diamorphine by injection 1 – 2.5mg 4-hourly). Higher

doses can be used if the patient was already on weaker


Titration: this describes the adjustment of a drug dose to an

individual patient, while allowing the patient’s body time

to adjust to the drug to minimise adverse effects (see Fig

3). Titration is done in 25-50% steps every 1-2 days.

Safety margin of opioids: morphine and diamorphine have

a wide safety margin or ‘therapeutic range’ (see Fig 3).


Pain relief


Breakthrough doses

Fig 3: the titration of morphine to an individual patient


The unsafe use of morphine and diamorphine

Shipman gave 30mg diamorphine intravenously to patients

who had no pain. Others have given 60mg diamorphine IV

to patients who have never had an opioid before. Such

doses are 30-60 times higher than would be used in

palliative care. The result is to breakthrough the safety

margin and cause dangerously high levels of drug in the

blood (see Fig. 4). The high levels will be reached more

rapidly, and to higher levels, if the drug is given

intravenously – the route chosen by Shipman. Even if death

does not occur, agitation and distress can occur.


Pain relief


Fig 4: the effect of a single, high dose, intravenous dose on

blood levels of diamorphine

Double effect- a myth with a double life?

The principle of double effect is not used in palliative care.

Doctors are not faced with the dilemma of giving a

potentially lethal drug dose to a distressed patient.

A palliative care doctor gives repeated, small doses of one

or more drugs, each titrated to an individual until the

symptoms are eased, while doing everything possible to

avoid toxicity. Doctors who give 30-60 times the required

dose of morphine or diamorphine, usually as a single

intravenous dose, are acting either negligently or

maliciously. Since drug records should exist for opioids,

there is a clear audit trail to follow if a subsequent

investigation is required.

With exceptions such as Shipman, UK doctors are very

cautious about shortening life. The persistent belief that

opioids and sedatives shorten life or hasten death stems

from the experiences of bad practice in the use of the drugs.

Evidence in the last 20 years has shown that opioids and

sedatives are safe when following palliative care protocols.

Clinicians who believe otherwise should be challenged to

provide robust clinical evidence to support their view.

Morphine and diamorphine are inherently safe when used

correctly, but they are powerful drugs with the potential for

harm. There is a parallel here with modern cars which are

inherently safe unless they are driven by negligent or

malicious drivers:

- no one blames cars for road deaths, when bad drivers are

at fault, so why blame the morphine when bad prescribers

are at fault?

Further reading

Pharmacological resource for palliative care:

Online textbook of palliative care:

Self learning worksheets on opioids and othe aspects of

palliative care:

CLiP (Current Learning in Palliative Care)

on: (click on ‘e-;earning’)

Glossary of terms

Adverse effects: unwanted effects of a drug. Some are easily

treated (eg. constipation), others wear off quickly (eg.

drowsiness) while a few uncommon effects are uncommon (eg.

confusion) and every effort is made to avoid serious adverse


Analgesics: drugs capable of easing pain. Examples are the weak

opioids (eg. codeine) and the strong opioids (eg. morphine).

Benzodiazepines: drugs related to diazepam. In palliative care,

only very short acting drugs are used (eg. midazolam, lorazepam)

to avoid excessive sedation.

Diamorphine: inactive opioid that needs to be converted to

morphine in the body before it can be effective. Similar potency

to morphine. Used in the UK for injections and infusions because

of its high solubility in water.

Morphine: the ‘gold standard’ opioid with over 30 years

understanding of its use in palliative care.

Opioid: a strong pain killer like morphine. Only used for pain

relief- never used as a sedative in palliative care.

Sedative: drug used to calm a frightened or agitated patient. The

benzodiazepines are the commonest types used.

Terminal sedation: the use of sedatives at the end of life to

reduce fear or agitation, but without hasten death.

Therapeutic range: the margin between the dose needed to

produce a good effect and the dose needed to produce adverse


Titration: the adjustment of a drug dose to an individual patient,

while allowing the patient’s body time to adjust to the drug to

minimise adverse effects. Done in 25-50% steps every 1-2 days.

Toxicity: levels of drug in the blood causing serious adverse

effects eg. agitation, coma, respiratory depression. In palliative

care these are actively avoided or treated if they occur.



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