Opioid Tapering Template

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This tool is to support primary care providers in discussing the value of opioid tapering with all adult patients currently prescribed an opioid and to support their patients in reducing opioid dosages in a safe and effective way.

Important considerations for opioid tapering

  • Clinicians should engage patients in shared decision-making, including consideration of the patient’s values, goals, concerns and preferences prior to tapering.1,2
  • When possible, an interdisciplinary team approach should be used during the tapering process to support complementary non-pharmacological and pharmacological management.1,2
  • For patients starting or continuing an opioid trial, discuss and document patients’ goals on a regular basis. (SMART goals: Specific, Measurable, Agreed-upon, Realistic, Time-based).
  • Consider the potential opioid harms and safety concerns.
  • Pregnancy – spontaneous abortion and premature labour have been associated with opioid withdrawal during pregnancy.
  • When you have concerns about tapers destabilizing mental illnesses, destabilizing or unmasking substance use disorders including opioid use disorders or medically unstable conditions (e.g. severe hypertension, unstable CAD) consider seeking out additional consultation or supports.
  • Naloxone is a medication that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. It is recommended to keep naloxone on hand in case of an accidental overdose. This is particularly important for patients on doses of >50 morphine equivalent dose (MED)/day, those with a history of overdose or concurrent benzodiazepine use
  • Ontarians with a health card are eligible for a free take-home naloxone kit. You can receive these kits and training on their use from pharmacies, community organizations and provincial correctional facilities.

For more information on where, how and when to use these kits visit: https://link.cep.health/ott

Reasons to consider opioid tapering, reduction or discontinuation
  • Patient requests dosage reduction
  • Problematic opioid behaviour (e.g. diversion, altering the route of delivery, accessing opioids from other sources)
  • Clear evidence of opioid use disorder (OUD)
    Tapering alone is not likely an effective treatment for OUD. It may require further assessment and possible consultation to identify the optimal therapeutic options.
  • Adverse effects:
    • Experiences overdose or early warning signs for overdose risk (e.g. confusion, sedation, slurred speech)
    • Medical complications (e.g. sleep apnea, hyperalgesia and withdrawal mediated pain)
    • Adverse effects impair functioning below baseline level
    • Patient does not tolerate adverse effects
  • Opioid dosages >90 MED1
  • Opioid dosages >50 MED without benefit in improving pain and/or function
  • Opioid is combined with benzodiazepines3

If pain and function are not improving despite opioid therapy, one should consider the potential harms relative to the lack of benefits, reduce opioid use and focus on other approaches.

Opioid use disorder criteria
Click to view criteria
Talking points
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How to taper, reduce, or discontinue

For those on a higher dose and/or longer term opioids there is an increased potential for more challenges to tapering, including withdrawal symptoms.

General approach

  • Establish the opioid formulation to be used for tapering
    • Switching from immediate release to controlled release opioids on a fixed dosing schedule may assist some patients in adhering to the withdrawal plan1
  • Establish the dosing interval
    • Scheduled doses are preferred over PRN doses (to help with better pain control and withdrawal)
    • Keep the dosing interval constant (e.g. bid)
  • Establish the rate of taper based on patient health, preference and other circumstances
    • Individualize tapering schedule – there is insufficient evidence to recommend for or against specific tapering strategies and schedules1,2
    • Slow taper should be followed unless otherwise indicated (e.g. patient preference)
    • Rapid taper over 2–3 weeks

Reducing the dose immediately or rapidly over a few days/weeks, may result in severe withdrawal symptoms and is best carried out in a medically-supervised withdrawal centre.1

  • Follow up with the patient frequently (e.g. every 1–4 weeks)2
  • Adjust the rate, intensity, and duration of the taper according to the patient’s response (e.g. pain, function, withdrawal symptoms)
    Tapering may be paused and potentially abandoned in patients who experience distressing or intolerable pain, withdrawal symptoms or a decrease in function that persists for more than 1 month after a small dose reduction.1
  • Treat pain and function with non-opioids (see Management of Chronic Non Cancer Pain tool)
  • Treat withdrawal symptoms PRN (see Withdrawal symptoms & management)
  • Taper to the lowest effective dose

How long a taper should take is difficult to predict and needs to be individualized to each patient, for some a very gradual taper is required that can take months and at times years.

Legend PRN = when necessary; ER = extended release; bid = twice a day; qam = in the morning; SR = slow release; qhs = at bedtime; IR = immediate release

Example of slow taper
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Example of rapid taper
Click to view
Other methods used
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Withdrawal symptoms & management

Opioid withdrawal can be very uncomfortable and difficult for the patient and can feel like a very bad flu. Opioid withdrawal is not usually life-threatening.

Onset and duration of withdrawal symptoms

Short-acting opioids

  • Onset: ~6–24 hours after last use
  • Duration: ~3–10 days

Long-acting opioids

  • Onset: ~12–72 hours after last use
  • Duration: ~10–20 days

Some symptoms may last for weeks or months (e.g. cravings, insomnia, dysphoria).

Talking points
Click to view

Symptoms and management5,6

Muscle pain

Slower taper may be required to address these symptoms

Neuropathic pain

Slower taper may be required to address these symptoms

Physical symptoms of withdrawal

(e.g. sweating, diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, chills, anxiety, insomnia and tremor)

  • If BP >90/50 mmHg, may give clonidine 0.1mg. Check BP & HR 1 hour later. If BP <90/50, HR <50 or dizziness, do not prescribe further. May titrate up to qid prn, then taper.
  • Do not give clonidine if BP < 90/50 mmHg or HR < 50 bpm
  • Stop stool softeners and/or laxatives (e.g. sennosides, docusate sodium, lactulose) if applicable
  • Loperamide (if necessary) 4mg STAT, then 2mg after each unformed stool up to a maximum of 16mg per day
  • Cognitive Behaviour Therapy for Insomnia (CBT–I) (see Management of Chronic Insomnia tool)
  • Do not prescribe benzodiazepines, zopiclone or zolpidem
  • For patients already on benzodiazepine, zopiclone or zolpidem discuss the increased risk of harm and consider tapering once the patients are tapered off opioids.
  • Dimenhydrinate 25–100mg q4h prn
  • Prochlorperazine 5–10mg q6h prn
  • Haloperidol 0.5–1mg q12h prn
  • Metoclopramide 10mg q4–6h prn
Abdominal cramps
  • Hyoscine butylbromide 20mg tid-qid prn for 2–3 days
Muscle cramps
  • Quinine sulfate 300mg bid prn
  • Oxybutynin 2.5–5mg bid prn (short-term use)
  • Ensure patient is well-hydrated
Overdose prevention

Tolerance of previous dose of opioids is lost after 1–2 weeks. Patients may inadvertently take the original dose to help with withdrawal symptoms or pain resulting in possible overdose and mortality risk.

  • Naloxone kit

Tapering plan and follow-up visits

Tapering plan

This form is designed to help primary care providers document the tapering plan agreed upon by both the patient and the primary care provider. Ensuring the patient has been part of the planning process is important for buy-in and adherence to the agreed upon plan. Have the patient repeat the plan back to you to ensure that they understand it. When undertaking an opioid taper plan, please keep in mind that although there may be a taper schedule in place there may be a need to deviate from the plan (e.g. pausing) or adjust the rate, intensity or duration of the taper depending on how the patient is responding with regards to their pain, function, withdrawal symptoms and other life events.

Follow-up visits

This form is designed to help primary care providers document the patient’s tolerance to tapering. If the patient is experiencing a high degree of withdrawal symptoms, consider adjusting the rate of taper, pausing the taper, treating withdrawal symptoms or monitoring if the patient is tolerating symptoms and is motivated to continue.

After you have assessed how well the patient is tolerating tapering, determine if they are ready to continue with the taper as planned at this time or decide if you will need to deviate from the plan or pause the taper.

If the patient is NOT tolerating the taper please consider:

  • Pausing taper
  • Changing taper’s
    • Rate
    • Duration
    • Next planned visit

If the patient is tolerating the taper, please consider:

  • Current opioid dose
  • Week of taper
  • Next planned opioid dose
  • Planned next visit

Supporting material

*These supporting materials are hosted by external organizations and as such, the accuracy and accessibility of their links are not guaranteed. The CEP will make every effort to keep these links up to date.

References New

  • [1]

    Michael G. DeGroote National Pain Centre, McMaster University. Canadian guideline for safe and effective use of opioids for chronic noncancer pain. 2017; [cited Jan 4, 2018].

  • [2]

    Department of Veterans Affairs & Department of Defense. VA/DoD clinical practice guideline for opioid therapy for chronic pain. 2017 ; [cited Jan 4, 2018].

  • [3]

    Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): CDC Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain. 2016 ; [cited Jan 4, 2018].

  • [4]

    American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. 5th edition. Arlington: American Psychiatric Association; c2013.

  • [5]

    Michael G. DeGroote National Pain Centre, McMaster University. Opioid tapering – information for patients. [cited Jan 4, 2018].

  • [6]

    World Health Organization. Clinical guidelines for withdrawal management and treatment of drug dependence in closed settings. Geneva: 2009 ; [cited Jan 4 2018].