Patients’ Experience With Opioid Tapering: A Conceptual Model With Recommendations for Clinicians

Published:September 20, 2018DOI:


      • Patients experience tapering as a dynamic, nonlinear process.
      • Tapering requires substantial effort across many domains of patients’ daily lives.
      • Patients typically discuss only some of their tapering strategies with clinicians.


      Clinical guidelines discourage prescribing opioids for chronic pain, but give minimal advice about how to discuss opioid tapering with patients. We conducted focus groups and interviews involving 21 adults with chronic back or neck pain in different stages of opioid tapering. Transcripts were qualitatively analyzed to characterize patients’ tapering experiences, build a conceptual model of these experiences, and identify strategies for promoting productive discussions of opioid tapering. Analyses revealed 3 major themes. First, owing to dynamic changes in patients’ social relationships, emotional state, and health status, patients’ pain and their perceived need for opioids fluctuate daily; this finding may conflict with recommendations to taper by a certain amount each month. Second, tapering requires substantial patient effort across multiple domains of patients’ everyday lives; patients discuss this effort superficially, if at all, with clinicians. Third, patients use a variety of strategies to manage the tapering process (eg, keeping an opioid stash, timing opioid consumption based on planned activities). Recommendations for promoting productive tapering discussions include understanding the social and emotional dynamics likely to impact patients’ tapering, addressing patient fears, focusing on patients’ best interests, providing anticipatory guidance about tapering, and developing an individualized tapering plan that can be adjusted based on patient response.
      Perspective: This study used interview and focus group data to characterize patients’ experiences with opioid tapering and identify communication strategies that are likely to foster productive, patient-centered discussions of opioid tapering. Findings will inform further research on tapering and help primary care clinicians to address this important, often challenging topic.

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