Are Pain Meds the Only Option for Chronic Pain in Cirrhosis?

Jim King

June 27, 2022

Pain is common in patients with cirrhosis, and its management presents significant challenges to health care providers, such as worries about GI bleeding, renal injury, falls, and hepatic encephalopathy.

To address those issues, researchers at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, authored a review, published in Hepatology, that describes the pain syndromes experienced by patients, as well as pharmaceutical and nonpharmaceutical treatment options.

"I think it's a very pragmatic approach to a very common problem. Health care providers are concerned about prescribing analgesia for people with cirrhosis for a number of different reasons. One of them is acetaminophen can be toxic to the liver, but generally only in pretty large doses. It's actually a pretty good option in a dose of less than about 2 g/day because it doesn't have some of the side effects that other painkillers such as the NSAIDs have. It doesn't irritate the stomach, and it doesn't affect kidney function," said Paul Martin, MD, who was asked to comment on the review. He is chief of digestive health and liver diseases at the University of Miami.

He appreciated the discussion of both pharmacologic and nonpharmacologic interventions, including diet and psychological interventions. "And I think it provides a useful overview of the pharmacological agents we can use in patients with cirrhosis, so I think it's a very useful contribution to the literature," said Martin.

An estimated 40%-79% of cirrhosis patients experience chronic pain, and it can be a key factor in worsening functional status and quality of life. The authors noted that, although recent practice guidance had recommended involving palliative care providers, psychiatry, and physical therapy in for patients with decompensated cirrhosis, this is not always feasible. The authors also pointed out that there are different pain phenotypes in cirrhosis, and these require different management strategies.

They described three mechanistic categories of chronic pain: Nociceptive pain involves tissue damage and inflammation; neuropathic pain results from nerve damage; and nociplastic pain describes situations in which there is no evidence of tissue or nerve damage, but clinical or psychophysical signs suggest changes to nociception.

The different pain types are best assessed using different tools: The 2016 Fibromyalgia Survey Criteria is useful for nociplastic pain, the Neuropathic Pain Questionnaire and painDETECT can be useful for neuropathic pain, and a physical examination can pinpoint nociceptive pain.

When managing chronic pain, the initial patient workup should include a complete evaluation of the location, quality, and severity of pain, along with any functional interference or associated symptoms like fatigue, mood disturbance, or sensory sensitivity. One option is to use a body map to assess how widespread the pain is. Multisite pain is often a signal that it could be nociplastic. Any comorbid psychiatric disorders should be identified and treated.

The first treatment option for any pain should be self-directed, nonpharmacologic interventions. This is because most analgesics are only modestly effective in the treatment of chronic pain, leading to improvement in only about one in three cases, the authors noted. Opioids have poor efficacy against chronic pain, particularly nociplastic pain, which may even be worsened by opioid use.

Although there is evidence that patients are motivated to seek out nonpharmacologic pain treatment, they have reported frustration by a dearth of simple, evidence-based therapies. The authors noted that digital self-management tools for pain have been developed, including their own Pain Guide, which focuses on exercise and behavioral interventions for chronic pain. Other nonpharmacologic approaches include diet modification and sleep hygiene. Patients should be allowed to choose the approach that interests them most, with the physician emphasizing the importance of self-directed management.

Pharmacologic therapy may be added to these approaches, but they have limited utility and are associated with adverse effects. For nociceptive pain, topical NSAIDs like diclofenac gel can be used, as can acetaminophen (500 mg every 6 hours, maximum dose of 2 g/day). Opioids can be employed for short-term treatment of acute pain (for example: hydromorphone 1 mg every 6 hours as needed, oxycodone 2.5 mg by mouth every 6-8 hours as needed, or fentanyl patch in select patients). Tricyclic antidepressants may be used for multiple symptoms or neuropathic pain, but with caution. Neuropathic pain, as well as associated depression or fatigue, can be treated with low-dose serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors, though there is a small risk of hepatotoxicity. Neuropathic pain, sleep difficulties, or anxiety can be treated with gabapentin at low starting doses (for example, 300 mg/day) or pregabalin (for example, 50 mg twice a day). Lidocaine patches are an option for peripheral neuropathic pain or postherpetic neuralgia, and topical capsaicin may be used for peripheral neuropathic pain.

"Since all pain types can co-occur, interventions to address nociplastic pain may be broadly therapeutic," the authors concluded. "The treatment of nociplastic pain emphasizes nonpharmacologic management, including self-management techniques addressing mood, cognitions, behaviors, sleep, and environment. Future research should continue to explore methods of pain phenotyping, as well as self-management therapies, including implementation tools."

The authors and Martin reported no relevant conflicts of interest.

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.


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