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New Research Reveals Dangerous Consequences of Stopping Opioid Treatment for Chronic Pain

Opioid addiction is a serious public health concern that affects millions of people worldwide. It is characterized by the compulsive use of opioids despite negative consequences, such as health problems, relationship troubles, and financial difficulties. The addiction can be caused by a variety of factors, including chronic pain, mental health issues, and exposure to opioid drugs.

Discontinuation of opioid therapy for pain may increase the risk of overdose in patients.

Opioid-related overdose has become a major contributor to accidental deaths in the United States and Canada. A new study recently published in the journal PLOS Medicine, led by Mary Clare Kennedy of the University of British Columbia, Kelowna, Canada, indicates that stopping prescribed opioids may increase the risk of overdose.

In an effort to decrease opioid-related illness and death, Canada and the United States have established guidelines to limit opioid prescriptions for chronic pain. However, the impact of discontinuing opioid treatments on overdose risk remains largely unstudied. To investigate the relationship between discontinuing prescribed opioid therapy for pain and overdose risk, a team of researchers conducted a retrospective cohort study of individuals receiving long-term opioid therapy for pain in British Columbia between October 2014 and June 2018. They studied the medical records of 14,037 patients registered with the provincial health insurance client roster in British Columbia who had been on opioid therapy for at least 90 days.

The researchers found that discontinuing opioid therapy for pain was associated with increased overdose risk among people without opioid use disorder (OUD). Yet the association was stronger in those with OUD, including those not receiving opioid agonist therapy (AHR = 3.18; 95% CI = 1.87 – 5.40, p<0.001) and receiving opioid agonist therapy (AHR = 2.52; 95% CI = 1.68 – 3.78, p<0.001). Finally, tapering opioid therapy was associated with decreased risk of overdose in those with OUD who had not received opioid agonist therapy (AHR = 0.31, 95% CI = 0.14 – 0.67, p=0.003).

The study had several limitations as the outcome measure did not capture overdose events that did not involve a healthcare encounter or result in death. Additionally, the researchers were unable to determine the source of the drugs involved in overdoses and whether they were prescribed or obtained illicitly.

According to the authors, “These findings point to the need to avoid abrupt discontinuation of opioid treatment for pain and to enhance guidance for prescribers in modifying opioid treatment tapering strategies on the basis of opioid use disorder and opioid agonist therapy status.”

Kennedy adds, “Given the increased risk of overdose, sudden discontinuation of opioid treatment for chronic pain should be avoided in almost all instances. Enhanced guidance is needed to support prescribers in implementing safe and effective opioid for pain tapering strategies, with particular consideration of opioid use disorder and prescribed opioid agonist therapy status.”

Reference: “Discontinuation and tapering of prescribed opioids and risk of overdose among people on long-term opioid therapy for pain with and without opioid use disorder in British Columbia, Canada: A retrospective cohort study” by Mary Clare Kennedy, Alexis Crabtree, Seonaid Nolan, Wing Yin Mok, Zishan Cui, Mei Chong, Amanda Slaunwhite and Lianping Ti, 1 December 2022, PLOS Medicine.
DOI: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1004123

This study was funded by a Canadian Institutes of Health Research Project Grant. SN is supported by the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research and the University of British Columbia’s Steven Diamond Professorship in Addiction Care Innovation. LT is supported by a Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research Scholar Award. The funders had no role in study design, data collection, and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

Source: SciTechDaily