Original Research

Dialing back opioids for chronic pain one conversation at a time

Author and Disclosure Information

In this study, significant opioid tapering was achieved following frank discussions and the use of a tapering protocol. And patient-physician relationships weren’t jeopardized.




Purpose Our study examined the efficacy of a primary-care intervention in reducing opioid use among patients who have chronic non-cancer pain (CNCP). We also recorded the intervention’s effect on patients’ decisions to leave (or stay) with the primary-care practice.

Methods A family physician (FP) identified 41 patients in his practice who had CNCP of at least 6 month’s duration and were using opioids. The intervention with each patient involved an initial discussion of ethical principles, evidence-based practice, and current published guidelines. Following the discussion, patients self-selected to participate with their FP in a continuing tapering program or to accept referral to a pain center for management of their opioid medications. Tapering ranged from a 10% reduction per week to a more rapid 25% to 50% reduction every few days. Twenty-seven patients continued tapering with their FP, and 6 months later were retrospectively placed in the Taper Group. Fourteen patients chose not to pursue the tapering option and were referred to a single-modality medical pain clinic (MPC). All patients had the option of staying with the FP for other medical care.

Results At baseline and again at 6 months post-initial intervention, the MPC Group was taking significantly higher daily doses of morphine equivalents than the Taper Group. The Taper Group at 6 months was taking significantly lower average daily narcotic doses in morphine equivalents than at baseline. No significant baseline-to-6 month differences were found in the MPC Group. Contrary to many physicians’ fear of losing patients following candid discussions about opioid use, 40 of the 41 patients continued with the FP for other health needs.

Conclusions FPs can frankly discuss opioid use with their patients based on ethical principles and evidence-based recommendations and employ a tapering protocol consistent with current opioid treatment guidelines without jeopardizing the patient-physician relationship.

Opioid prescriptions for chronic noncancer pain (CNCP) have increased significantly over the past 25 years in the United States.1 Despite methodologic concerns surrounding research on opioid harms, prescription opioid misuse among CNCP patients is estimated to be 21% to 29% and prescription addiction 8% to 12%.2 Tragically, with the overall increase in opioid use for CNCP, substance-related hospital admissions and deaths due to opioid overdose have also risen.3

Increased opioid use began in 1985 when the World Health Organization expanded its ethical mandate for pain relief in dying patients to include relief from all cancer pain.3 Opioid use then accelerated following Portenoy and Foley’s 1986 article4 and the 1997 consensus statement by the American Academy of Pain Medicine (AAPM) and the American Pain Society (APS),5 with both organizations arguing that opioids have a role in the treatment of CNCP. Increased use of opioids for CNCP continued throughout the 1990s and 2000s, as many states passed legislation removing sanctions on prescribing long-term and high-dose opioid therapy, and pharmaceutical companies aggressively marketed sustained-release opioids.3

A balanced approach to opioids. While acknowledging the serious public health problems of drug abuse, addiction, and diversion of opioids from licit to illicit uses, clinical research and regulation leaders have called for a balanced approach that recognizes the legitimate medical need for opioids for CNCP. In 2009 the APS, in partnership with the AAPM, published evidence-based guidelines on chronic opioid therapy (COT) for adults with CNCP.6 In developing these guidelines, a multidisciplinary panel of experts conducted systematic reviews of available evidence and made recommendations on formulating COT for individuals, initiating and titrating therapy, regularly monitoring patients, and managing opioid-related adverse effects. Additional recommendations addressed the use of therapies focusing on psychosocial factors. The APS-AAPM guidelines received the highest rating in a systematic review critically appraising 13 guidelines that address the use of opioids for CNCP.7

Continue to: When opioid use is prolonged...


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