Joseph W. Frank, MD, MPH; Travis I. Lovejoy, PhD, MPH; William C. Becker, MD; Benjamin J. Morasco, PhD; Christopher J. Koenig, PhD; Lilian Hoffecker, PhD, MLS; Hannah R. Dischinger, BS; Steven K. Dobscha, MD; Erin E. Krebs, MD, MPH


Background:Expert guidelines recommend reducing or discontinuing long-term opioid therapy (LTOT) when risks outweigh benefits, but evidence on the effect of dose reduction on patient outcomes has not been systematically reviewed.

Purpose:To synthesize studies of the effectiveness of strategies to reduce or discontinue LTOT and patient outcomes after dose reduction among adults prescribed LTOT for chronic pain.

Data Sources:MEDLINE, EMBASE, PsycINFO, CINAHL, and the Cochrane Library from inception through April 2017; reference lists; and expert contacts.

Study Selection:Original research published in English that addressed dose reduction or discontinuation of LTOT for chronic pain.

Data Extraction:Two independent reviewers extracted data and assessed study quality using the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force quality rating criteria. All authors assessed evidence quality using the GRADE (Grading of Recommendations Assessment, Development and Evaluation) system. Prespecified patient outcomes were pain severity, function, quality of life, opioid withdrawal symptoms, substance use, and adverse events.

Data Synthesis:Sixty-seven studies (11 randomized trials and 56 observational studies) examining 8 intervention categories, including interdisciplinary pain programs, buprenorphine-assisted dose reduction, and behavioral interventions, were found. Study quality was good for 3 studies, fair for 13 studies, and poor for 51 studies. Many studies reported dose reduction, but rates of opioid discontinuation ranged widely across interventions and the overall quality of evidence was very low. Among 40 studies examining patient outcomes after dose reduction (very low overall quality of evidence), improvement was reported in pain severity (8 of 8 fair-quality studies), function (5 of 5 fair-quality studies), and quality of life (3 of 3 fair-quality studies).

Limitation:Heterogeneous interventions and outcome measures; poor-quality studies with uncontrolled designs.

Conclusion:Very low quality evidence suggests that several types of interventions may be effective to reduce or discontinue LTOT and that pain, function, and quality of life may improve with opioid dose reduction.


What we need are studies that include not just stopping or decreasing doses of standard opiates, but of switching to mixed agonist/antagonist therapies such as buprenorphine and how well that works for these folks!

Dr. Raymond Oenbrink
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