Module 4: Therapeutics

Lesson 4

Opioid tapering

The following steps from the Canadian Guideline for Safe and Effective Use of Opioids for Chronic Non-Cancer Pain outline the actions for each phase of opioid tapering (NOUGG, 2017, Appendix 12).

Before initiation

  • Emphasize that the goal of tapering is to make the patient feel better: to reduce pain intensity and to improve mood and function.
  • Develop a detailed treatment agreement.
  • Prepare to provide frequent follow-up visits and supportive counselling.

Type of opioid, schedule, dispensing interval

  • Use controlled-release morphine if feasible (see 2.3 below).
  • Prescribe scheduled doses (not PRN).
  • Prescribe at frequent dispensing intervals (daily, alternate days, or weekly, depending on the patient’s degree of control over opioid use).
  • Do not refill if the patient runs out.
  • Keep daily schedule the same for as long as possible (e.g., TID).

Rate of the taper

The rate of the taper can vary from 10% of the total daily dose every day to 10% of the total daily dose every 1–2 weeks. Slower tapers are recommended for patients who are anxious about tapering, may be psychologically dependent on opioids, have co-morbid cardio-respiratory conditions, or express a preference for a slow taper.

  • Slow the taper to one-half or less of the previous rate once one-third of the original dose is reached.
  • Hold the dose when appropriate. The dose should be held or increased if the patient experiences severe withdrawal symptoms, a significant worsening of pain or mood, or reduced function during the taper.

Switching to morphine

  • Consider switching to morphine if the patient may be dependent on oxycodone or hydromorphone.
  • Calculate equivalent dose of morphine.
  • Start the patient on one-half of this dose. Note that tolerance to one opioid is not fully transferred to another opioid.
  • Adjust the dose up or down as necessary to relieve withdrawal symptoms without inducing sedation.

Monitoring during the taper

  • Schedule frequent visits during the taper (e.g., weekly).
  • At each visit, ask about pain status, withdrawal symptoms and possible benefits of the taper: reduced pain and improved mood, energy level, and alertness.
  • Use urine drug screening to assess compliance.

Completing the taper

  • Tapers can usually be completed between 2–3 weeks and 3–4 months.
  • Patients who are unable to complete the taper may be maintained at a lower dose if their mood and functioning improve and they follow the treatment agreement.