Opinion

Expanding Access to Innovative Treatments for Pain With the Same Urgency Brought to COVID-19

The United States is a leader in medical innovation, and this fact has been on full display as American researchers, scientists and medical experts seek to develop treatments to end the COVID-19 pandemic. The urgent progress made in mere months to rapidly discover medicines to combat coronavirus has been promising and illustrates how we can apply that same urgency to treating some of the most physically and emotionally challenging chronic pain conditions that patients face today – such as osteoarthritis.

For many of the 30 million Americans living with osteoarthritis, there are limited clinical options that are safe and effective enough to help them treat and manage their pain symptoms. According to a recent Arthritis Foundation survey of nearly 2,000 patients with osteoarthritis, only 15 percent of respondents reported that their condition was well-managed. Osteoarthritis most commonly affects joints in a patient’s spine, knees, hands, and wrists. When it’s not controlled, osteoarthritis inhibits a patient’s ability to complete routine activities that many of us take for granted, such as walking, exercising, and maintaining a steady job.

As state and local officials have issued guidance to stay at home and maintain social distancing during the pandemic, many patients with osteoarthritis and other pain conditions have experienced challenges in staying active or getting the care they need to manage their condition. Half of Arthritis Foundation survey respondents said stay-at-home orders and other virus suppression activities have prevented them from exercising, and nearly 40 percent of respondents said they have missed or canceled a doctor’s appointment due to fear of getting infected with COVID-19. A Kaiser Family Foundation health-tracking poll similarly showed how the coronavirus has disrupted care for American adults.

Patients with osteoarthritis and other pain conditions often try a combination of treatments to manage their symptoms, including anti-inflammation medications, diet and exercise, opioids and braces or canes. But even when combined, many patients don’t find these treatments effective in reducing their pain. A remarkable 85 percent of patients who responded to the Arthritis Foundation survey ranked reducing pain as their most important goal for a new treatment.

Alternative, nonopioid medications for osteoarthritis and other pain conditions could help many patients better treat and manage their symptoms and ultimately improve quality of life for millions of Americans living with joint pain. And the federal pathway to discover these new medicines exists. The Substance Use Disorder Prevention that Promotes Opioid Recovery and Treatment for Patients and Communities (SUPPORT) Act gives the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and National Institutes of Health the authority and responsibility to drive research, innovations, and stakeholder engagement to help inform the development of new and innovative treatments for pain. We must encourage FDA and NIH to give osteoarthritis patients, providers and other stakeholders the platform – whether virtual or in-person – to share their perspectives and be involved as these agencies consider the pathway for new and innovative pain treatments.

Pain management puts an immense burden on osteoarthritis patients and affects all aspects of an individual’s life. But current treatments haven’t solved that challenge. Take Sgt. Nicholas Steen, for instance. Now 38 and working in the private sector, he joined the Army straight out of high school. When he was honorably discharged four years later, he had acquired leadership and lifesaving skills – and arthritis.

His story is not unique. Studies show more than a third of veterans have some form of arthritis, and it’s the second leading cause of medical discharge from the Army. Worse, many soldiers are young when they receive injuries that lead to osteoarthritis. That means more years of pain, disability and limitations. Steen often feels pain that affects almost every joint, from his shoulders to his ankles. “My back, knees, ankles and feet are often in pain as I do my normal activities,” he says. “I live with this pain daily.”

The Arthritis Foundation and American College of Rheumatology have been working to have arthritis added to a list of 20 specific diseases that receive dedicated research funding from the Department of Defense, and veterans like Steen have spoken on Capitol Hill to appeal for a $20 million arthritis research program that could help identify ways to reduce joint injuries for servicemen and women that prevent arthritis. For Sgt. Steen and millions of others, we need to bring the same urgency and innovation to pain management that we are bringing to the current COVID-19 pandemic.

New, more effective and longer-lasting therapies that improve pain management for patients could have positive direct and indirect benefits for patients and the U.S. health care system. And as new and more innovative nonopioid therapies for pain come to market, we must ensure Americans have adequate access to these safe alternatives. Treatments for pain that can be taken less often with more effective results could significantly improve physical, emotional and financial outcomes for patients who are managing pain every moment of every day.

Ann Palmer is the president and CEO of the Arthritis Foundation, a nonprofit organization that is dedicated to addressing the needs of people living with arthritis in the United States.

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