Feds Warn About Rapid Opioid Tapers

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Federal health officials are once again urging doctors not to rapidly decrease or abruptly stop prescribing opioid medication to chronic pain patients.

In an editorial published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), three federal health officials warn that sudden opioid tapering significantly increases the risk of harm to patients, resulting in increased hospitalizations and emergency room visits.

“There are concerning reports of patients having opioid therapy discontinued abruptly and of clinicians being unwilling to accept new patients who are receiving opioids for chronic pain, which may leave patients at risk for abrupt discontinuation and withdrawal symptoms,” the editorial warns.

The editorial was written by Deborah Dowell, MD, of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Wilson Compton, MD, of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and Brett Girior, MD, of the U.S. Public Health Service. Dowell is one of the co-authors of the CDC’s controversial opioid guideline, which has been widely used as an excuse by doctors, insurers and pharmacies to impose mandatory limits on prescribing.  

Even before its release in March 2016, pain patients and advocates warned the CDC guideline would result in rapid tapering, patient abandonment and suicide.

But not until April of this year – after three years of needless deaths and suffering -- did the FDA and CDC start urging doctors to be more cautious in their tapering.

It then took another six months for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to produce a 6-page guide for doctors on how to taper patients.

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“The HHS guide and current guidelines emphasize that tapering should be individualized and should ideally proceed slowly enough to minimize opioid withdrawal symptoms and signs. Physical dependence occurs as early as a few days after consistent opioid use, and when opioids have been prescribed continuously for longer than a few days, sudden discontinuation may precipitate significant opioid withdrawal,” the JAMA editorial warns.

The HHS tapering guide urges doctors not to dismiss pain patients and to share decision making with them when developing a taper program.

“If the current opioid regimen does not put the patient at imminent risk, tapering does not need to occur immediately. Take time to obtain patient buy-in,” the guideline cautions. “There are serious risks to non-collaborative tapering in physically dependent patients, including acute withdrawal, pain exacerbation, anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, self-harm, ruptured trust, and patients seeking opioids from high-risk sources.”

The guide suggests tapers of 5% to 20% every four weeks, although slow tapers of 10% a month may be appropriate for patients taking opioids for more than a year.

A recent study of tapering in Vermont found only 5 percent of patients had a tapering period longer than 90 days. The vast majority (86%) were rapidly tapered in 21 days or less, including about half who were cut off from opioids without any tapering. Many of those patients were hospitalized for an “opioid-related adverse event” -- a medical code that can mean anything from severe withdrawal symptoms to acute respiratory failure.

Another recent study at a Seattle pain clinic found that tapered patients had an unusually high death rate, with some dying from suspected overdoses.

Meanwhile, not a single word of the CDC opioid guideline has changed since federal health officials finally acknowledged it was harming patients and needed clarification.