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How to taper, reduce, or discontinue New

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
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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
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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

Opioid agonist therapy (OAT) New

OAT involves taking the opioid agonists buprenorphine-naloxone or methadone in order to prevent withdrawal and reduce cravings for opioids.25

Buprenorphine-naloxone is considered first-line treatment for OUD. Buprenorphine-naloxone is a 4:1 mixture of buprenorphine to naloxone that is administered sublingually. Buprenorphine is a long-acting semi-synthetic partial opioid agonist that relieves opioid withdrawal symptoms and cravings. The inclusion of naloxone is intended to prevent diversion through injection.10 Naloxone is not absorbed orally. It does not contribute to the efficacy of buprenorphine-naloxone and does not cause withdrawal in people who take opioids while on buprenorphine-naloxone.

In conjunction to prescribing buprenorphine-naloxone, the risks and benefits of all of the treatment options are to be provided to patients.20

Buprenorphine-naloxone is generally preferable to methadone because of its improved safety profile.20 (see below)

Initiating and maintaining OAT with buprenorphine-naloxone or methadone can be done in primary care, integrated care (primary care and addiction care), or specialized clinic settings.1

Talking points
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Buprenorphine–naloxone vs. methadone21

Methadone and generic buprenorphine-naloxone are both covered under Ontario Drug Benefits and most private plans.

  • Lower risk of overdose
  • Shorter time to achieve an effective dose
  • Milder side effect profile
  • More flexible dosing schedules and take-home doses
  • Feasible for rural and remote locations
  • Easier to transition from buprenorphine-naloxone to methadone
  • Lower risk of harms (e.g. respiratory depression)
  • May have higher treatment retention rates for those with higher intensity opioid use (e.g. heroin, those who inject opioids)
  • No withdrawal necessary to start treatment
Information for methadone prescribing

Methadone is to be used only if providers have the appropriate skills and training to do so, due to the risks and restrictions affiliated with prescribing methadone.*

  • Consider methadone for OAT if treatment with buprenorphine-naloxone is contraindicated or not preferred9
  • Discuss switching to methadone if buprenorphine-naloxone is not relieving the patient’s cravings7
  • May be preferred treatment for individuals who cannot be stabilized on buprenorphine-naloxone9

Prescribing considerations for methadone

  • Before prescribing methadone providers must discuss the risks and side effects of methadone, duration of treatment, and issues of accessibility and logistics (i.e. daily pharmacy visits for two months, potential impact on lifestyle and employment, and special considerations for traveling)
  • Keep patient on methadone if they are already stable on the medication


*See Machealth Managing Opioid Use Disorder for more instructions and support for methadone prescribing12

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 New

*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].