Tapering off opioids is treacherous for mental health

A large-scale study shows how the opioid epidemic has created downstream negative health outcomes

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A collection of opioid-cessation productions with names like "Soothdrawal" and "Nofeel Cravites"

Via Wikimedia

The causes of the US opioid epidemic are complex, but excessive prescription of opioid painkillers played a significant role. As a result, health authorities now recommend that doctors gradually reduce or discontinue prescribing opioid painkillers to their patients with chronic pain, a practice referred to as opioid tapering. 

But authorities warn that opioid tapering can come with risks. In a new large-scale study, researchers demonstrate the potential dangers associated with opioid tapering. 

The results were recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association by a team of researchers at the University of California, Davis. To evaluate the potential harm of tapering opioid prescriptions, the researchers looked at the health data of 113, 618 people who were prescribed stable, high-dose opioid therapy for at least a one year period of time from 2008 to 2019. Next, they compared the health outcomes of people whose opioid therapy was tapered to the health outcomes of people before opioid tapering or whose opioid therapy was not tapered. They found that opioid tapering is associated with an elevated risk of both drug overdose and mental health crises, specifically depression, anxiety, and suicide attempts.

The researchers caution that interpretation of their findings is limited by the study’s observational design. Nonetheless, the results raise questions about the risks of opioid tapering, highlighting the importance of taking steps to minimize those risks, such as careful planning, monitoring, and coordination between patients and doctors.