Every patient living with HIV should be screened for chronic pain and offered a variety of pain-relieving therapies, starting with non-drug treatments such as cognitive behavioral therapy, yoga, and physical therapy, according to the first comprehensive guidelines on HIV and chronic pain released by the HIV Medicine Association (HIVMA) of the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA).
It is estimated that approximately 39 to 85 percent of people with HIV live with chronic pain. Nearly half of chronic pain in people with HIV is neuropathic (nerve pain), likely due to inflammation or injury to the central or peripheral nervous system caused by the infection. Non-neuropathic pain typically is musculoskeletal, such as low-back pain and osteoarthritis in the joints.
“Because HIV clinicians typically are not experts in pain management, they should work closely with others, such as pain specialists, psychiatrists, and physical therapists to help alleviate their patients’ pain,” said Douglas Bruce, M.D., MA, MS, lead author of the guidelines, chief of medicine at Cornell Scott-Hill Health Center, and associate clinical professor of medicine at Yale University, New Haven, Conn.
“These comprehensive guidelines provide the tools and resources HIV specialists need to treat these often-complex patients, many of whom struggle with depression, substance use disorders, and have other health conditions such as diabetes.”
The guidelines recommend all people with HIV be screened for chronic pain using a few simple questions:
- How much bodily pain have you had during the week?
- Do you have bodily pain that has lasted more than three months?
Patients that screen positive should then complete a comprehensive evaluation, including a physical exam, psychosocial evaluation, and diagnostic testing.
“It has been long known that patients with HIV/AIDS are at high risk for pain, and for having their pain inadequately diagnosed and treated,” said Peter Selwyn, M.D., MPH, co-chair of the guidelines and professor and chair of the Department of Family and Social Medicine, and director of the Palliative Care Program for Montefiore Medical Center, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Bronx, NY.
“This is an aging population and the changing clinical manifestations of HIV, complexity of the disease and additional challenges related to substance abuse make treatment complicated. These guidelines help provide clarity in treating these patients.”
The guidelines recommend offering alternative, non-pharmacological therapies first, including cognitive behavioral therapy, yoga, physical and occupational therapy, hypnosis, and acupuncture.
If drugs are necessary, the guidelines suggest beginning with non-opioids, such as gabapentin (anti-seizure medicine) and capsaicin (topical pain reliever made from chili peppers), both of which help with nerve pain.
“Opioids are never first-line,” said Bruce. “The guidelines always recommend the most effective treatment with the lowest risk.”
The guidelines are published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases.