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Risks of Too Rapid—and Uncalled For?—Opioid Tapering

JAMA Study: Tapering Due to “Policy Pressures” Bad for Patients

Newswise — Stigma and safety fears have made daily dose tapering of opioid prescriptions more common. New research from UC Davis Health physicians, however, shows tapering can occur at rates as much as six times higher than recommended, putting patients at risk of withdrawal, uncontrolled pain or mental health crises.

The study ― “Trends and Rapidity of Dose Tapering Among Patients Prescribed Long-term Opioid Therapy, 2008-2017” ― is published in JAMA Network Open. The results also will be presented at the Nov. 16-19 North American Primary Care Research Group meeting in Toronto.

“Tapering plans should be based on the needs and histories of each patient and adjusted as needed to avoid adverse outcomes,” said study author Alicia Agnoli, assistant professor of family and community medicine. “Unfortunately, a lot of tapering occurs due to policy pressures and a rush to get doses below a specific and sometimes arbitrary threshold. That approach can be detrimental in the long run.”

In 2016, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended dose tapering, or a slow reduction in prescription opioid doses over time, if the risks of continuing opioids outweigh the benefits. That point in time is usually when a patient is taking 90 morphine milligram equivalents ― or MMEs ― each day, and that dose is no longer reducing pain or improving daily functions. The CDC advises a slow decrease of 10% MMEs per month.

The study team set out to examine trends in opioid dose tapering and if tapering rates were consistent with CDC recommendations.

“We wanted to understand how often opioid dose tapering happens, how rapidly patients’ doses were being reduced when tapering, and which patients were more likely to have doses tapered,” said lead author Joshua Fenton, professor of family and community medicine.

Tapering faster than recommended

Fenton and Agnoli evaluated medical and pharmacy claims and enrollment records for more than 100,000 commercial insurance and Medicare Advantage enrollees, representing a diverse mixture of ages, races, ethnicities and locations across the U.S. They focused on individuals whose opioid doses were stable for at least a year and identified tapering patients as those with a 15% or more reduction in daily MMEs during a seven-month follow-up period.

They found that...


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