Trends and Rapidity of Dose Tapering Among Patients Prescribed Long-term Opioid Therapy, 2008-2017

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Importance: A 2016 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention prescribing guideline cautioned against higher-dose long-term opioid therapy and recommended tapering daily opioid doses by approximately 10% per week if the risks outweigh the benefits. Warnings have since appeared regarding potential hazards of rapid opioid tapering. Objectives: To characterize US trends in opioid dose tapering among patients prescribed long-term opioids from 2008 to 2017 and identify patient-level variables associated with tapering and a more rapid rate of tapering. Design, Setting, and Participants: This retrospective cohort study used deidentified medical and pharmacy claims and enrollment records for 100 031 commercial insurance and Medicare Advantage enrollees, representing a diverse mixture of ages, races/ethnicities, and geographical regions across the United States. Adults with stable, higher-dosage (mean, ≥50 morphine milligram equivalents [MMEs]/d) opioid prescriptions for a 12-month baseline period and 2 or more months of follow-up from January 1, 2008, to December 31, 2017, were included in the study. Main Outcomes and Measures: Tapering was defined as 15% or more relative reduction in mean daily MME during any of 6 overlapping 60-day windows within a 7-month follow-up period. The rate of tapering was computed as the maximum monthly percentage dose reduction. Results: Among the 100 031 participants (53 452 [53.4%] women; mean [SD] age, 57.6 [11.8] years), from 2008 to 2015, the age- and sex-standardized percentage of patients tapering daily opioid doses increased from 10.5% to 13.7% (adjusted incidence rate ratio [aIRR] per year, 1.05 [95% CI, 1.05-1.06]) before increasing to 16.2% in 2016 and 22.4% in 2017 (aIRR in 2016-2017 vs 2008-2015, 1.20 [95% CI, 1.16-1.25]). Patient-level covariates associated with tapering included female sex (aIRR, 1.13 [95% CI, 1.10-1.15]) and higher baseline dose (aIRR for ≥300 MMEs/d vs 50-89 MMEs/d, 2.57 [95% CI, 2.48-2.65]). Among patients tapering daily opioid doses, the mean (SD) maximum dose reduction was 27.6% (17.0%) per month, and 18.8% of patients had a maximum tapering rate exceeding 40% per month (ie, faster than 10% per week). More rapid dose reduction was associated with 2016-2017 vs 2008-2015 (adjusted difference, 1.4% [95% CI, 0.8%-2.1%]) and higher baseline dose (adjusted difference, 2.7% [95% CI, 2.2%-3.3%] for 90-149 vs 50-89 MMEs/d). Conclusions and Relevance: Patients using long-term opioid therapy are increasingly undergoing dose tapering, particularly women and those prescribed higher doses; in addition, dose tapering has become more common since 2016. Many patients undergoing tapering reduce daily doses at a rapid maximum rate.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)e1916271
JournalJAMA Network Open
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 1 2019

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine(all)


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