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Pain Part 2: Getting rid of pain

Pain and pain relief are massive topics which can – and do – fill several textbooks. It’s way beyond the scope of a blog to go into all of the detail surrounding the use of painkillers, and so all I really want to do is to outline some of the different types of pain control that we can use, both in the surgery and as day-to-day treatments. Pain relief is one of the great success stories in medicine, and it’s no coincidence that some of my favourite drugs of all time are painkillers. Our advances mean that pain in our patients shouldn’t be accepted, and although sometimes we fail to control it, we should never stop trying. We use a number of different types of painkiller:
  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
  • Steroids
  • Opioids and opioid-like drugs
  • Others
NSAIDs These are the most widely-used type of painkiller and include (for humans) aspirin, ibuprofen and paracetamol. They act by stopping inflammation. They’re commonly prescribed for post-op pain and for joint problems and may be given for long periods of time. When you’re given painkillers to take home from the vets, they’re usually NSAIDs. Three things to really take on board with these drugs:
  1. Human drugs are not always safe for pets, so never give anything to your pet without talking to your vet first: half a paracetamol can kill a cat, a big dose of ibuprofen can do the same to dogs and even a solitary aspirin can be a lethal overdose for a toy breed, designed as it is for a much bigger animal (us). This is why we have veterinary-licensed drugs for our patients.
  2. Increasing doses won’t give more pain relief, and may cause side effects. If they’re not working for your pet, talk to your vet about alternatives.
  3. NSAIDs are most effective when given before the inflammation starts. It might seem odd to suggest giving painkillers before the pain even begins, but this is important in treating chronic, repeated and predictable pain like arthritis.
Two of the most common drugs we use are meloxicam and carprofen. Meloxicam usually comes as a syrup, which can be dosed very accurately, and carprofen is generally in tablet form. Both drugs may be used long term as a daily dose and both have been responsible for giving patients their lives back, sometimes for years. We’re also rediscovering paracetamol as an excellent addition to treatments in dogs. Recently, newer NSAIDs have been introduced which are labelled either as cox-2 inhibitors (e.g. firocoxib), or else dual inhibitors (tepoxalin). Essentially, these are just descriptions of which bit of the inflammatory cascade they act upon, and they’re designed to reduce some risks of side effects that we see with other NSAIDs. It’s arguable, though, as to whether they’re better at relieving pain than some of the older drugs. More recent still is Trocoxil, an NSAID for dogs which is only given once a month. The theory is that because it acts as a persistent block to inflammation, there’s no point where the vicious cycle of pain can really take a hold. The exact ins and outs of the drug are a bit too much to go into here, but as always, speak to your vet about this medication if you’re interested in finding out more. Do understand, though, that it’s not for every patient and your vet may have good reasons not to use it on your dog. Steroids Steroids are very powerful anti-inflammatories, which gives them painkilling properties. However, they also affect the immune system – many patients take them for allergies and auto-immune problems - and can have major side-effects when used long-term at high doses; they also can’t be given with NSAIDs and so for practical reasons their use as painkillers is limited. You may have experience of PLT (Predno-LeucoTropin), a medicine with a steroid component which can be great for chronic pain when other drugs seem to be failing. It’s been around for a long time, and many an experienced vet will recognise its usefulness. Opioids Opioids are a group of drugs which act to block the passage and brain detection of pain signals. The classic drug in this group is morphine, which still forms the basis for relief of severe pain in humans. These are very powerful painkillers indeed, although the degree of pain relief depends on whether they’re what we call a full-agonist or a partial-agonist. Drugs like morphine, pethidine and fentanyl are full-agonists, and tend to be used only within the surgery. They are subject to close control and are never dispensed. Generally they’re given by injection, although fentanyl is available as a long-acting skin patch, which has been very successful for use in trauma patients like RTA cats. Buprenorphine and butorphanol are partial-agonists and are often used as part of a pre-med before surgery. Buprenorphine is a great painkiller which is usually injected within the practice, but may occasionally be dispensed for oral, very short-term use. It is certainly useful in breaking pain cycles and allowing us to get onto more stable pain relief regimes. For in-patients where NSAIDs either don’t quite cut it, or else a combination therapy is needed, buprenorphine is an excellent drug. A drug that we’ll often use long-term in out-patients is tramadol. This is a human drug which acts in a similar manner to opioids, and has a number of significant advantages:
  1. It’s usually pretty safe, although it can temporarily knock some patients a little flat. Your vet should tell you about this when prescribing.
  2. It’s a GOOD painkiller
  3. As it has a different way of working to NSAIDs or steroids, it can be used in conjunction with many other drugs to create a better painkilling effect
Others Other drugs that we use act in novel ways, or else are designed for other purposes but just happen to help with pain control. These are important drugs, and whilst they’re described last they’re definitely not least in importance. In brief:
  • Local anaesthetics may be used in and around surgery, to numb the pain nerves. These tend to be injectable, although some creams are available which can be useful to pre-treat patients with needle phobias and the like.
  • Ketamine – yes, the horse tranquiliser – has been used for years in emergency medicine as a painkiller; it’s often included in battle packs for soldiers. Its use in our patients is quite specialised and confined to hospital environments.
  • Gabapentin. This is a very interesting drug indeed. It’s normally used as an anti-epileptic, but seems to have a great effect on pain of nervous origin (aka neuropathic pain), so can be useful for spinal and neurological conditions.
  • Cartrophen is an anti-arthritic drug (also sometimes used in bladder problems in cats) which has a number of effects on joints. It’s usually given as four weekly injections, followed by a variable period of remission. It can be very beneficial for some arthritis patients, but may need a little forward planning in its use, as its administration isn’t recommended at the same time as NSAIDs. It’s certainly a drug worthy of close inspection in long term arthritis cases.
Integrated methods of pain control Whilst it’s obvious that we have some great drugs for relieving pain, reliance on drugs alone in any condition is generally a limiting approach, as adding in other treatment types – or modalities - may offer greatly increased success rates. For example, in heart disease drugs may help to keep the cardiovascular system going, but are much less effective when used by themselves than in an overall strategy including lifestyle change, weight loss, exercise programmes, regular monitoring and support networks. Similarly, drugs may form the heart of a pain relief strategy, but shouldn’t be used as an excuse to avoid other measures that can help – and there are even times when non-drug pain control is good enough that painkillers are not needed. Whatever the non-drug modality used, the decision on when not to use painkillers is a simple one:
  1. The pain is being completely controlled by non-drug methods.
  2. That’s it.
Remember that phrase – pain is not acceptable in our patients. If nothing else, these blogs should have explained both why pain is a bad thing in the long run, and the sheer number of drugs that fight pain. Treating pain completely without drugs is a brilliant solution, but simply taking the edge off the pain is not enough. Equally, though, finding a number of ways to help with the pain will almost certainly mean that your pet gets more relief and is happier. Treatment modalities which can help in chronically painful conditions include:
  • Acupuncture – there’s a reasonable body of evidence for the physical effects of acupuncture and theories of how it may ‘close the gate’ on pain. It’s now widely available around the country, but must be performed by or under the direction of a vet.
  • Supplements – for joint problems, there are a number of supplements containing combinations of glucosamine, chondroitin and green-lipped mussel extract, which protect the cartilage and may even get rid of the need for painkillers in early arthritis. Additionally, essential fatty acid supplements and vitamin E are both mooted as aids to tissue repair and free-radical scavenging.
  • Herbal remedies containing Devil’s Claw are widely available, but be warned that the supplement can cause side effects and that clinical trials have produced highly variable results.
  • Weight loss – whilst it’s obvious that in arthritis, every excess ounce is another ounce of pain, recent work has suggested that body fat has a chemical pro-inflammatory effect which may exacerbate pain generally. Reducing body fat may reduce the body’s pain responses, particularly in chronic conditions.
  • Surgery – for many painful conditions, surgery is the obvious treatment to permanently remove the pain at source.
  • Physiotherapy – hydrotherapy, mobilisation, massage and PROM are all very useful in promoting recovery and dealing with chronically painful conditions. Access to these services is usually by referral from your vet, and animal physios are highly qualified professionals.
  • Mood enhancement – pain is depressing, so elevating mood helps patients to cope, and also makes new pain easier to deal with. A number of products are available, from pills (including zylkene, a natural extract, and amitryptilline) to pheromone sprays and diffusers (feliway, DAP), but equally, promotion of routine and enjoyable activities can be very successful.
  • Prevention –as the best pain relief is prevention, a word should be said about how we avoid seeing dogs with arthritis or cats with pancreas issues in the first place. Also perhaps timely, as the Animal Health Trust, in conjunction with Edinburgh Vet School, have just announced a project into genetic testing for hip and elbow dysplasias in Labradors. Being able to breed the conditions out of our patients will have a major impact on the wellbeing of future generations (so, if your Lab is KC registered and hip scored, the AHT might just want to hear from you).
  • Magnet therapy – to this day, I still don’t know if this really works, but plenty of my clients are convinced – including a large proportion of horse owners, who are about the most hard-bitten, unpersuadable people out there.
There are, of course, countless other integrated therapies, like Reiki or Homeopathy, and each will have their champions and detractors. The important factors with any of these are choice and inclusivity – it’s fine to explore all of the possibilities, but not to the detriment of the patient. As a general rule, the vet who prescribes you meloxicam won’t demand that you stay off the Reiki during treatment, and this should work both ways. The mainstay of pain relief will always be drug therapy, but its effectiveness can be massively enhanced by looking at integrated treatments. Pain is such a debilitating problem that anything which can help to remove it has got to be worth exploring. If you feel that your pet may be in pain, especially if you’re already giving treatment, then speak to your vet about what you can do - there are so many ways to target pain that there’s bound to be something to help. And do remember that phrase: pain is not acceptable in our patients. If you are worried about your pet's health, talk to your vet or use our Interactive Symptom Guide to help assess how urgent the problem may be.

Gastric Torsion in Dogs

Also known as Bloat, Twisted Stomach, Gastric Dilatation-Volvulus or GDV, this condition is one of the most serious emergencies in small animal practice, and it can make all the difference to the outcome if it is recognised immediately. There are two parts to this condition, the bloat and the torsion. Bloat is when the dog’s stomach fills up with gas, fluid, froth or a mixture of all of these, to a far greater size than normal. Torsion (volvulus) is when the whole stomach twists inside the abdomen so that it is closed off at both its entrance and its exit, just like a sausage which is twisted closed at both ends. They may both occur together, or one may lead to the other. If bloat occurs first, the enlarged stomach is at greater risk of torsion. If torsion occurs first, bloating will definitely result. No food can leave the stomach, so it ferments, and no gas can be belched up. [caption id="attachment_1592" align="alignleft" width="214"]Annie, a Gordon Setter, suffered with bloat but survived thanks to her owner spotting the signs Annie, a Gordon Setter, suffered with bloat but survived thanks to her owner spotting the signs[/caption] The effect of the swollen stomach is that it presses on all of the other vital organs close to it. The breathing will become difficult and if the large blood vessels within the abdomen get squeezed so much that they cannot allow blood flow, then other organs will begin to shut down. The stomach wall and the spleen can become necrotic or dead due to loss of blood flow, and this releases toxins into the bloodstream. It is very painful, and if not corrected, the dog will die. The reasons for this condition occurring are not fully understood, but there are some well known and definite risk factors. The condition happens mainly in larger breeds, particularly those with a deep-chested shape like Great Danes, German Shepherds, Setters, Wolfhounds and Boxers, but these are not the only breeds affected. It also happens more (but not exclusively) in dogs over 7 years of age, and it is more common in males than in females. The risks increase if the stomach is very full, either with food or with water, so a dog which is fed once daily and eats very quickly, or gets access to the food store and gorges itself, would be at higher risk. Exercising after eating or after a big drink also increases the risk. Symptoms The onset of a gastric torsion is usually very rapid. The dog can appear quite normal one minute but once symptoms start they very quickly get worse. The most common symptoms are some or all of:
  • Restlessness, anxiety
  • Discomfort, followed by worsening pain
  • Arched back, reluctance to lie down
  • Drooling saliva or froth
  • Attempts to vomit (retching) with little being brought up
  • Swollen abdomen, often feels hard and if tapped feels like a balloon
  • Rapid breathing
  • Pale coloured gums and tongue
  • Collapse
  • Shock, possible death
It is vital to get veterinary attention as soon as possible if you suspect bloat or torsion. Always phone your surgery or your emergency service first as it will save valuable time if you go to the right place where the staff are prepared for your arrival. Occasionally, there can be a slower onset. This may mean that the stomach has bloated without twisting, but there is still a high risk of torsion occurring so advice should be sought from your surgery. Diagnosis & Treatment Diagnosing the condition can be very straightforward if a dog is showing all of the classic symptoms. X-rays may be needed to confirm it. Blood tests will probably be taken to find out how serious the changes in the blood are, because changes in the circulating levels of salts in the blood can be life-threatening. These will be treated with intravenous fluids given quickly and at high volumes. A stomach tube may be passed, but this will not be successful if the stomach has twisted because the tube will not be able to get through the obstructed entrance. The vet may decide to decompress the stomach (let some gas out) by inserting a needle into the dog’s side. The order in which these procedures may be carried out will depend on just how ill the dog is. A surgical operation will be needed to untwist the stomach, to check for damage to the organs and to try to prevent it from happening again. Some will need immediate surgery and others will need to be stabilised first to improve their chances of survival. Some dogs have to have part of the stomach or the spleen removed if the damage has been severe. The surgery is very high risk especially if the dog is already in shock because of the effects on the circulation and breathing. When successful surgery is carried out, with the stomach and spleen returned to their normal position or repaired if damaged, it is common to perform a procedure to try to stop the condition occurring again, known as a gastropexy. There are different ways of doing this, but the aim is to anchor the stomach to the abdominal wall so that it is unable to twist. It could still bloat, but hopefully the consequences would not be so serious. The survival rate following this condition varies a lot, but sadly, many dogs die each year from gastric torsion. The survival rate is better in younger dogs and if immediate treatment is given. Prevention
  • Be aware of the signs to look out for
  • Feed larger dogs two or three smaller meals a day
  • Do not allow your dog to exercise after eating or after a big drink
  • Try to discourage rapid eating by separating competitive dogs at feeding time
  • Try a specially shaped feeding bowl designed to slow eating down
  • The effects of type of food and feeding from a raised bowl are under constant review and more research will show whether these are significant or not
[caption id="attachment_1596" align="alignright" width="183"]Martha with her young friend Tilly Martha with her young friend Tilly[/caption] I suspect that most vets never forget the first case of gastric torsion that they see. Mine was in a Great Dane, which I worked on all night with the help of two nurses. That one was fortunate and survived. It was a great moment for all of us when it left the surgery mid-morning the next day. The nurses jokingly told me that there was another one on the way in but I didn’t believe them, at least, not until I saw it walk in, arriving just as the first one left. Since then I have treated many dogs with gastric torsion and it is always memorable and always a challenge. My own boxer Martha died of this condition last year despite very prompt attention and all preventative measures being in place. Sadly, her age was against her and our only consolation is that her suffering was very short-lived.   If you are concerned about your dog's health, talk to your vet or use our interactive Dog Symptom Guide to help decide what to do next.

Pain in animals part 1: what is pain?

Pain. Everybody knows what it feels like, and – apart from a few determined individuals – we tend to avoid it. But what is it? The International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP) defines it as: “an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage.” Or, in other words, when you damage yourself it hurts. And if you’re feeling down already, it hurts more. And if you’re not feeling down already, then pain may make you feel down. And then it will hurt more. The IASP mainly looks at pain in humans, but it’s a long time since we stopped trying to pretend that animals either don’t feel pain like we do, or else don’t get upset about it. They do, and their inability to communicate pain effectively (or else our inability to properly listen) means that for a lot of animals, pain is a chronic, miserable constant in their lives, despite help being close to hand. There are tiny pain receptors all over the body, inside and out, attached to nerve fibres. When a tissue is damaged, they’re triggered to send impulses up to the brain, which senses them and registers the feeling we call pain. Hard to describe, but we all understand what it is and we’ve all got experience of it. Pain receptors are usually well embedded in tissues, and usually need a fair bit of triggering – otherwise, any form of touch would be painful. When we describe pain in ourselves, we often use terms like sharp, jabbing, dull or throbbing, and they can give an indication of how bad it is. But in a more fundamental sense, we differentiate into two types: physiologic and pathologic. Physiologic pain is ‘protective’ – it’s the pain we get when picking up a hot pan. Very quickly, the body registers the ‘ouch’ and the pan is dropped, hopefully before too much damage is done. Without this kind of reflexive response, we’d just keep on holding the pan until our hands were badly damaged. Physiologic pain, more or less, is our friend. Pathologic pain, on the other hand, is the pain that comes from existing damage, such as a broken leg or a arthritis. Whilst it can initially be useful to draw our attention to the condition, it becomes debilitating quite quickly and can be a problem in its own right. It’s this kind of pain that we need to deal with in our patients: the pain that is ever-present or recurrent, at whatever level. If we don’t, the pain becomes responsible for stress, depression and a reduced quality of life. For example, the pain of arthritis can actually make the condition worse:
  1. being unwilling to move around makes the joints stiffen up through lack of use
  2. lack of exercise piles on the weight, putting more pressure on the joints
  3. increased pressure on the joints means more pain, so less movement, more stiffening and more weight gain
A vicious cycle is created where the problem becomes worse and worse under its own steam – and pain is as the root of it. Whilst we can’t cure the arthritis itself, by removing pain and getting our patients moving we can reverse the stiffness and get some weight off. Pathologic pain can have its uses, but isn’t always our friend. How do we recognise pain? Domino sleepingIn order to be able to keep our pets out of pain, we must be able to recognise the signs of pain. Remember, though, that absence of signs doesn’t guarantee that there’s no pain – if in doubt, assume it’s there. Understanding how a pet feels depends on a number of things:
  • Empathy
  • Understanding of normal behaviour
  • Observation
Some owners are just better at spotting pain. Some patients are better at showing it. But unless we look for it, we’re never going to find it. Dogs tend to be the easiest patients in which to spot pain: their outward responses to pain are more similar to ours than for most species. They’re designed for pack-living, and their conditioning in our homes makes them more likely to be willing to show pain to us, and even to seek help with it. I have, over the years, seen a small number of ‘malingerers’ who were hopping lame at home, but completely normal when away from their owners - generally because being hopping lame at home meant cuddles and treats and all things good. Do beware, though, of behavioural changes as the only signs of chronic pain in dogs. When our collie, Juno, was a younger dog, a combination of being overweight (yes, shame on me), hip dysplasia and the appearance of screaming toddlers with grabby hands made her mildly aggressive – which, for Spoony, was so out of character that it was immediately apparent. Early recognition of the central issue, along with pain control measures (weight loss, acupuncture, educating the kids) sorted it all out quickly. Cats are different, very different. When in pain, they tend to isolate and may just become distant and/or grumpy. There may be aggression towards inanimate objects, or self-directed as overgrooming to the point of self-harm, and accidentally touching the sore spot will usually lead to bloodshed, none of which will be the cat’s. But cats are relatively worse at expressing pain in other ways which are immediately recognisable. Drop in food intake is, though, a classic sign of pain in cats. Rabbits and other herbivores (traditionally, the prey animals) can be very difficult to recognise as being in pain. Their entire survival in the wild depends on not looking weak – predators will tend to go after the stragglers first, to reduce energy expenditure and risk in obtaining food. Survival in the wild depends on being invisible as a target, so hiding signs of pain is standard in these patients. Sometimes, you have to look very hard to find it, which doesn’t mean that the pain isn’t significant. It’s entirely connected that these are the species whose general welfare gives us the most worry. General signs of pain in animals include:
  • Reduced mobility or abnormal movement – if it hurts to move, pain is reduced by not moving. Equally, if a pet is moving in an odd way, then it’s because moving in a normal way hurts. A major, major problem that we encounter is the attitude that reduced mobility is a normal part of ageing – so pain is often not recognised in older patients. It’s amazing what a trial on painkillers can do to change minds.
  • Guarding and defence – hiding away or trying to protect the bit that hurts. A common entry on clinical notes is ‘guarding the abdomen’ which usually relates to a tenseness in the belly when we’re trying to palpate.
  • Inappetance – most animals will either eat less or stop eating altogether when in pain. When the pain is settled, we often see rebound eating, where intake is increased for a while. This can be a cardinal sign for assessing response to treatment.
  • Adipsia or polydipsia – most animals will also drink less, although some, often as a response to stress, will drink too much. Patients with abdominal pain will often swallow great bowlfuls of water, possibly because of a temporary soothing effect.
  • Altered interaction – many animals will hide away and reduce their interactions with other members of the household; others, particularly dogs, will become more needy and seek more interaction. Normally friendly relationships may explode into world war three and, rarely, vice-versa. It’s not so much how the interactions change, but that they change in the first place.
  • General distress – other signs of distress include increased breathing rate, increased pulse rate, abnormal breathing (cats DON’T pant as a normal behaviour), vocalisation (howling, mewing, whimpering), a certain glassiness of the eyes, hunched body position, bubbling at the mouth (reptiles), fluffing of the feathers or over-stimulation and anxiety from normal noises and events.
Harvey hidingEven allowing for all of these symptoms, pain can be a vague and difficult thing to spot. One of our classic presentations in the consult room is ‘S/he’s just not right’, where a patient just isn’t him- or herself. It’s astonishing how many of these patients have some kind of pain complex, and full marks from me to any owner who can spot when their pet is just not happy, however subtle. Nothing ever happens for no reason, and absence of any particular symptom in a depressed patient should always trigger suspicion of pain as a cause. What factors make pain worse? Inflammation is a big one. Inflammation is the swelling you get around, say, a cut or a sprain. It’s also the reason why a sprained ankle tends to hurt more the next day than it does at the time of injury. Inflammation is the body’s reaction to detecting damage and is its way of drawing the immune system in to start repairing things. Once damage is detected, a sequence of events is triggered called the inflammatory cascade, which goes a bit like a line of dominoes – once started, it takes on a life of its own. The end result is the release of a lot of chemicals which promote blood flow into the area and, importantly here, an increased sensitivity of the local pain receptors so that almost any pressure sets them off. A good illustration of this is to imagine someone poking you lightly in the arm. For most of us, it’s not painful, just annoying (and strangely familiar for those with brothers and sisters). However, if you’d been to the doctors for a jab earlier in the day, suddenly the touch is extremely painful. The inflammation around the injection site has switched all the pain receptors on to the point where even light pressure sets them off. This phenomenon is at the heart of much of the chronic pain that our patients suffer from, with conditions like arthritis. Drugs which try to stop the inflammatory cascade are called anti-inflammatories. Other things that make pain feel worse are:
  • The amount of time that it’s been going on for - most of us are fairly stoic, at least at first, but sooner or later an inability to get comfortable, to sleep, to do the things we want to, all start to get us down. It’s the same for our pets.
  • Having more than one painful bit – two plus two in this case tends to make five.
  • Previous experience of pain. Our pets have a phenomenal memory for pain, which translates to a fear of repeating the experience. Pain at the vets can put a patient off us for life, which is why we try to make the first couple of visits as stress-free as possible.
  • Being in a bad mood already. If you walk down the street on a happy day and stub your toe, it hurts. If you’re already in a bad mood, the world seems to cave in. This is where the vicious cycle of pain and depression starts to bite: being in pain causes stress and depression, and stress and depression make pain feel worse.
Pain control is one of the most progressive aspects of veterinary medicine, which means that pain in our pets is no longer acceptable. It might not always be possible to get right on top of it, but that doesn’t mean we should ever be happy about it - and there are now so many available treatments that giving up is simply not a reasonable option. In the next instalment, I want to discuss the various drugs that we can use in dealing with pain in animals, and how they might fit together. After that, we’ll briefly go on to integrated (non-drug) treatments and how they can make all the difference to some patients. If you are worried about any symptoms in your pet, please talk to your vet or use our Interacitve Symptom Guide for advice on how urgent the problem may be.
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