The conundrum of opioid tapering in long-term opioid therapy for chronic pain: A commentary

Subst Abus. 2018;39(2):152-161. doi: 10.1080/08897077.2017.1381663. Epub 2017 Oct 18.


Background: In response to the opioid epidemic and new guidelines, many patients on high-dose long term opioid therapy (LTOT) for chronic pain are getting tapered off opioids. As a result, a unique clinical challenge is emerging: while many on LTOT have poor pain control, functional decline, psychiatric instability, aberrancies and misuse, these issues may often worsen with opioid tapering. Currently, a clear explanation and practical guidance on how to manage this perplexing clinical scenario is lacking.

Methods: We offer a commentary with our perspective on possible mechanisms involved in this clinical phenomena and offer practical management guidance, supported by available evidence.

Results: It is not well recognized that allostatic opponent process involved in development of opioid dependence can cause worsening pain, functional status, sleep and psychiatric symptoms over time, and significant fluctuation of pain and other affective symptoms due to their bidirectional dynamic interaction with opioid dependence ('affective dynamism'). These elements of complex persistent dependence (CPD), the grey area between simple dependence and addiction, can lead to escalating and labile opioid need, often generating aberrant behaviors. Opioid tapering, a seemingly logical intervention in this situation, may lead to worsening of pain, function and psychiatric symptoms due to development of protracted abstinence syndrome. We offer practicing clinicians management principles and practical guidance focused on management of CPD in addition to chronic pain in these difficult clinical scenarios.

Conclusion: Awareness of the science of the neuroplasticity effects of repeated use of opioids is necessary to better manage these patients with complex challenges.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Analgesics, Opioid / therapeutic use*
  • Chronic Pain / drug therapy*
  • Drug Administration Schedule*
  • Humans
  • Opioid-Related Disorders / prevention & control*
  • Pain Management / methods*
  • Withholding Treatment


  • Analgesics, Opioid