By Pat Anson, PNN Editor
Last month the Food and Drug Administration warned doctors not to abruptly discontinue or rapidly taper patients on opioid pain medication. The agency said it had received reports of “serious harm” to patients who’ve been suddenly cutoff, including withdrawal symptoms, uncontrolled pain, psychological distress and suicide.
A new study published in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment shows just how common the practice is. And how millions of pain patients are being subjected to a public health experiment with hardly anyone keeping track of what happens to them.
“The United States went through a great ‘experiment’ of expanding treatment of pain with opioids which has proved to be disastrous for public health. We have entered the next great ‘experiment’ of discontinuing opioid medications among the millions of Americans who are currently taking them,” said lead author Tami Mark, PhD, senior director of behavioral health at RTI International, a non-profit research institute.
“Little is known about how many individuals are tapering off opioid medications, whether observed tapering follows any… guidelines, and the extent to which rapid tapering is associated with negative consequences.”
Mark and her colleagues looked at medical and pharmacy claims for nearly 500 Medicaid patients in Vermont who had high doses of opioid medication discontinued from 2013 to 2017.
All of the patients were prescribed a daily dose of at least 120 MME (morphine milligram equivalent) and over half had been on that high dose for over a year.
Although most clinical guidelines recommend a “go slow” approach to opioid tapering – especially for patients on high doses – only 5 percent of the Vermont 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.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that patients on opioids be tapered only 10% a week, with even slower tapers of 10% a month for long-term users. Had those guidelines been applied in Vermont, most tapers would have taken up to a year to complete.
Half of Tapered Patients Hospitalized
What happened to the patients who were cut off? Nearly half were hospitalized or had an emergency room visit for an “opioid-related adverse event” -- a medical code that can mean anything from severe withdrawal symptoms to acute respiratory failure. For tapered patients, the risk of being hospitalized was reduced by 7% for each additional week of tapering.
Researchers don’t know how many of the discontinued patients committed suicide or how many were referred to addiction treatment. Notably, less than one percent received medication assistance treatment (MAT) such as Suboxone.
The study did not look at why patients were taken off opioids or who initiated the discontinuation. But researchers believe some of the rapid discontinuations “may be due to a breakdown in the clinical relationship between physicians and patients” – suggesting the patients were forcibly tapered or abandoned by their doctors.
In its warning to doctors, the FDA strongly recommends that patients not be forcibly tapered and that patients and doctors should jointly agree to a tapering plan.
“Health care professionals should not abruptly discontinue opioids in a patient who is physically dependent. When you and your patient have agreed to taper the dose of opioid analgesic, consider a variety of factors, including the dose of the drug, the duration of treatment, the type of pain being treated, and the physical and psychological attributes of the patient. No standard opioid tapering schedule exists that is suitable for all patients,” the FDA said.
Forced Tapering Widespread
How many patients have been forcibly tapered or discontinued is unclear, but it probably runs in the millions. A recent report from IQVIA found that there were 75 million fewer opioid prescriptions filled last year compared to 2014, with the biggest decline in high dose prescriptions.
In PNN’s recent survey of nearly 6,000 pain patients, over 80 percent said they had been taken off opioids or had their dose reduced since the CDC released its controversial opioid guideline in 2016. Many were turning to other substances – both legal and illegal – for pain relief. And nearly half said they had considered suicide because their pain is poorly treated.
“I have been forced to taper to 90 MME. I had been stable and functional for 10 years at 135 MME. Now I can no longer work, and can barely take care of my children. I am considering suicide because my pain is unbearable,” one patient told us.
“I have been forcibly tapered by more than half and my pain is not being relieved at this dose. I am now unable to work or care for my children,” another patient wrote. “I live in constant anxiety (which worsens my pain) that I will be abandoned, refused any pain management, or reduced to a dose so low that taking my own life is the only way to escape the pain.”
“My forced taper was a little over a year ago. Before that I lived a small but functional life on high dose opioids. I took the same dose, from the same doctor for over a decade. Then I was forced off of 75% of my dose,” said another patient. “Once we got down to my current dose the medication was no longer enough to control my pain. I now live a tiny, nonfunctional life. I spend all my time in bed watching TV. I never leave the house. Showers are my worst enemy. And I am lucky. I wasn’t abandoned by my doctor.”
A noted critic of opioid prescribing calls reports like these exaggerations. Andrew Kolodny, MD, the Executive Director and founder of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP), told Stateline that the number of doctors who are inappropriately tapering patients is likely very small and should not be blamed on the CDC.
"We have a very real problem in this country. But the CDC guidelines didn't cause it," Kolodny said. "The problem is that millions of Americans have been put on round-the-clock opioids at very high doses and for reasons that doctors now realize were not appropriate.
"What the FDA needs to tell doctors is that because it is so excruciating to come off of opioids, they need to be very selective about who they put on them.”
In a series of Tweets two years ago, Kolodny said patients on high doses should be forcibly tapered “even if patient refuses” and challenged assertions that forced tapering was risky and widespread.
Now Kolodny says he sympathizes with patients but claims they are being manipulated.
“Their emotions are real. But they’re being effectively manipulated to controversialize the CDC guidelines,” he told Stateline.
Many of Kolodny’s colleagues disagree. Over 300 healthcare professionals warned in a joint letter last year that forced opioid tapering has led to “an alarming increase in reports of patient suffering and suicides” and called for an urgent review of tapering policies at every level of healthcare.
“This is a large-scale humanitarian issue,” the letter warns. “New and grave risks now exist because of forced opioid tapering.”