Outcomes Matter When Opioids Are Tapered

By Roger Chriss, PNN Columnist

The drug overdose crisis has led to a rethinking of pain management. Prescription opioids are now seen as risky medications with potentially serious side effects, including addiction and overdose. As a result, there is an increasing push to discontinue or taper patients on long-term opioid therapy.

A recent op/ed in the Annals of Internal Medicine by physicians Roger Chou, Jane Ballantyne and Anna Lembke claims there is “little benefit” from long-term opioid use and “many patients” would benefit from tapering. They even suggest that the use of addiction treatment drugs such as Suboxone should be expanded to include pain patients dependent on opioids.

“Evidence indicates that long-term opioid therapy confers little benefit versus nonopioid therapy, particularly for function. Opioid use disorder (OUD) occurs in a subset of patients, and quality of life may be adversely affected despite perceived pain benefits,” they wrote.

“We argue that achieving effective, safe, and compassionate tapers requires implementing and incentivizing tapering protocols, recognizing prescription opioid dependence as a distinct clinical condition necessitating treatment, and expanding the indication for buprenorphine formulations approved for OUD to include prescription opioid dependence.”

It should be noted Chou is one of the co-authors of the CDC’s controversial opioid prescribing guideline, while Ballantyne and Lembke are board members of the anti-opioid activist group Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP). Ballantyne, who is president of PROP, was part of the “core expert group” that advised the CDC when it was drafting its guideline.

What Happens to Tapered Patients?

The goal of improving patient safety is admirable. However, there is relatively little data on what happens to patients during tapering or after opioids are discontinued. The evidence is mixed at best.

A 2018 review in Pain Medicine of 20 studies involving over 2,100 chronic pain patients found that most patients had less pain or the same amount of pain when tapering was completed. But the studies were not controlled and the evidence was of marginal quality, with large amounts of data missing.

A 2019 study in the journal Pain evaluated outcomes in 49 former opioid users with chronic pain. The findings showed that about half the patients reported their pain to be better or the same after stopping opioids, while the other half reported their pain was worse.

There are risks associated with tapering that also need to be considered, such as uncontrolled pain, suicide, overdose and early death. The tapering process itself can be extremely challenging and patient outcomes after discontinuation are not necessarily positive.

A recent study in the Journal of General Internal Medicine looked at what happened to chronic pain patients being treated at a large urban healthcare system in the year after they were tapered.

For about 5 percent of patients, “termination of care” was the primary outcome – a vague category that means there was no record of them seeking further treatment. Some of those patients may have miraculously gotten better and required no healthcare. And some may have died.

“These findings invite caution and demonstrate the need to fully understand the risks and benefits of opioid tapers,” the authors warned.

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Another study in the same journal is also concerning. Researchers at the University of Washington followed 572 patients who were treated with opioids at a Seattle pain clinic. About 20 percent of the patients died, a high mortality rate, but the death rate was even higher for patients who were tapered. Seventeen of them died from a definite or possible overdose.

“In this cohort of patients prescribed COT (chronic opioid therapy) for chronic pain, mortality was high. Discontinuation of COT did not reduce risk of death and was associated with increased risk of overdose death,” the authors concluded.

"We are worried by these results, because they suggest that the policy recommendations intended to make opioid prescribing safer are not working as intended," said lead author Jocelyn James, assistant professor of general internal medicine at the University of Washington School of Medicine. "We have to make sure we develop systems to protect patients."

In other words, opioid discontinuation does not necessarily lead to better outcomes, as Chou, Ballantyne and Lembke suggest. The blind push to taper patients at all costs to reduce opioid prescribing can have tragic consequences — which no one seems to be tracking.

“Crucially, today’s opioid prescribing metrics take no count of whether the patient lives or dies. Data from two recent studies strongly suggest it is time to start counting. The sooner quality standards are revised in favor of genuine patient protection, the better,” says Stefan Kertesz, MD, an Alabama physician and researcher.

Outcomes matter. And they need to be reasonable for the patient. A person with a self-limiting condition like low back pain may well benefit from opioid discontinuation. But some patients with more chronic conditions do not get better, and their needs cannot go ignored.

The Canadian Psychological Association emphasizes caution and patient safety in a recent position paper on the opioid crisis:  “Tapering must always be done gradually under physician or nurse practitioner supervision, with the patient's consent, and with ongoing support and monitoring of pain and functioning, as well as management of withdrawal symptoms."

The use of prescription opioids should always take patient risks and benefits into consideration. It also requires knowing about outcomes when taking patients off opioids. At present there is too much interest in numbers and too little interest in people.

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Roger Chriss lives with Ehlers Danlos syndrome and is a proud member of the Ehlers-Danlos Society. Roger is a technical consultant in Washington state, where he specializes in mathematics and research.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.