Original Research

Dialing back opioids for chronic pain one conversation at a time

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When opioid use is prolonged. Most primary care physicians are aware of the risks of prolonged opioid use, and many have successfully tapered or discontinued opioid medications for patients in acute or pre-chronic stages of pain.8 However, many physicians face the challenge of patients who have used COT for a longer time. The APS-AAPM guidelines may help primary care physicians at any stage of treating CNCP patients.


Purpose and design. This retrospective study, which reviewed pretest-posttest findings between and within study groups, received an exempt status from Creighton University’s institutional review board. We designed the study to determine the efficacy of an intervention protocol to reduce opioid use by patients with CNCP who had been in a family physician (FP)'s panel for quite some time. Furthermore, because a common fear among primary care providers is that raising concerns with patients about their opioid use may cause those patients to leave their panel,9 our study also recorded how many patients stayed with their FP after initiation of the opioid management protocol.

Subjects. This study tracked 41 patients with CNCP in 1 FP’s panel. Inclusion criteria for participation was: 1) presence of CNCP for at least 6 months, 2) current use of opioid medication for CNCP, 3) age of at least 16 years, and 4) ability to read and write English. Two exclusion criteria were the presence of a surgically correctable condition or an organic brain syndrome or psychosis.

Clinical intervention. The FP identified eligible patients in his practice that were taking opioids for CNCP and initiated a discussion with each of them emphasizing his desire to follow the ethical principles of beneficence, nonmaleficence, respect for autonomy, and justice.10 The FP also presented his reasons for wanting the patient to stop using opioid medication. They included his beliefs that:

1) COT was not safe for the patient based on a growing body of published evidence of harm and death from COT3;
2) long-term use of opioids could lead to misuse, abuse, or addiction2;
3) prolonged opioid use paradoxically increases pain sensitivity that does not resolve with discontinuation of opioid maintenance11,12 (although pain tolerance does improve after opioid cessation); and
4) the patient’s current pain medications were not in line with published guidelines for use of opioids for CNCP.6

Initially, 45 patients were eligible for the study, but 4 declined participation before the intervention discussion and were immediately referred to a single-modality medical pain clinic (MPC). These patients were not included in subsequent analyses. Of the remaining 41 patients, all had a discussion with the MD about ethical principles, practice guidelines, and the importance of opioid tapering. After the discussion, patients decided whether to continue with the plan to taper their opioid therapy or to not taper their therapy and so receive a referral to an MPC.

Continue to: The 27 patients who chose to work with...

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