Bitter Divisions and Murky Motives: Fibromyalgia Treatments
Posted Feb 18 2009 11:37am
Prescription Pill Peddling
In yet another display of their unlimited zeal for the treatment (not prevention, mind you) of mysterious and “murky” illnesses (usually, believe it or not, with the aid of expensive pills), pharmaceutical companies last year spent hundreds of millions of dollars (including $6 million in grants to “non profit” medical conferences and “education campaigns”) to establish the controversial fibromyalgia as a legitimate, serious illness requiring the kind of treatment only Big Pharma could possibly provide. On the surface, this seems like a relatively selfless act of goodwill and honest research – just a couple of multinational pharmaceutical companies tossing their money around and savin’ lives… right?
You know it’s not that simple. When we look a little deeper (and we stress “little”; we’re talking barely skimming the surface), the facts don’t seem to add up.
For one, fibromyalgia is still a hotly contested topic in the medical community. Critics point to the lack of diagnostic testing, the fact that there’s no clear cause, and the overlap the symptoms have with other, more accepted diseases as reasons to question its status as a “curable” illness. There’s no question that patients are obviously in pain, but experts are unclear whether pumping them full of drug cocktails is the best treatment.
Secondly, those “non profit” conferences dedicated to “education” about fibromyalgia don’t look so honorable when you realize they’re meant to promote the use of their own drugs; and that $6 million in grant money starts to look like a pretty sound investment in light of the enormous bump in sales Pfizer’s Lyrica and Lilly’s Cymbalta enjoyed between the first quarter of 2007 and the last quarter of 2008: a combined increase of almost $600 million. With sales like that, it’s no wonder they give more money to fibromyalgia than they do to diabetes and Alzheimer’s research (maybe they’ve tapped out the insulin drug well?).
We’re not saying it’s all a huge scam. There’s definitely a significant amount of patients suffering from the chronic muscle pain, depression, fatigue, and headaches that are associated with fibromyalgia. Numerous doctors who prescribe Cymbalta and Lyrica (among other drugs) to their patients report improvements and reductions in these symptoms. While these doctors undoubtedly care about their patients – one notable physician doesn’t “care how you categorize this – it’s a legitimate condition and these people are suffering” – it is a little curious that they sometimes receive training and funding from the drug companies. Dr. Daniel Clauw of the Univeristy of Michigan has done promising research on the brain scans of fibromyalgia patients, but he’s also done paid consulting work for pharmaceutical companies and works with the National Fibromyalgia Research Association, which receives funding from the companies.
Other doctors have stopped diagnosing the illness altogether, worrying that they were simply giving an arbitrary name to the mysterious pain in order to quell patients’ fears. Dr. Nortin Hadler even suspects fibromyalgia is a psychological condition and suggests therapy, rather than drugs (which carry some nasty side effects).
While we really don’t have a dog in this fight, we are naturally suspicious of Big Pharma spending money and using medical research to effectively market their exclusive treatments for an (heavily disputed) illness. And when you consider that the drugs in question – Cymbalta and Lyrica – were originally designed to treat depression and epileptic seizures, we gotta wonder if Pfizer and Lilly are simply broadening the scope of “one size fits all.” That works great with clothing, but we’re not sure it’s suitable for people’s health and wellness.