Alarming Risk Discovered for People Coming Off Opioids

Pills Risk

Patients on chronic opioid prescriptions who came off opioids were three times more likely to die of an overdose in the years that followed, a study found.

With a huge push to reduce opioid prescribing, little is known about the real-world benefits or risks to patients of stopping these pain medications.

A study published on August 29, 2019, in the Journal of General Internal Medicine found an alarming outcome: Patients coming off opioids for pain were three times more likely to die of an overdose in the years that followed.

“We are worried by these results because they suggest that the policy recommendations intended to make opioid prescribing safer are not working as intended,” said lead author Jocelyn James, assistant professor of medicine, Division of General Internal Medicine, at the University of Washington School of Medicine. “We have to make sure we develop systems to protect patients.”

Physicians had already begun to reduce opioid prescribing by 2016 when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued its first guideline on opioid prescribing. That trend accelerated after 2016.

While reduced prescribing may well be intended to improve patient safety, little is known about the real-world benefits or risks of this sea change in opioid prescribing. 

The observational study looked at a cohort of 572 patients with chronic pain who were enrolled in an opioid registry. Chronic opioid therapy was discontinued in 344 patients and 187 continued to visit a primary-care clinic. During the study period, 119 registry patients died (20.8%); 21 patients died of a definitive or possible overdose. Of these, 17 were patients who stopped using chronic opioid therapy and four were patients being seen at a clinic.

The researchers concluded,  “Discontinuing chronic opioid therapy was associated with increased risk of death in this observational study.”

The project team said that improved clinical strategies, including multimodal pain management and treatment of opioid-use disorder, may be needed for this high-risk group.

At the time of this study, state rules did not allow medication treatment of the opioid-use disorder in the primary-care setting, said co-author Joseph Merrill, professor of medicine, Division of General Internal Medicine, at the UW School of Medicine.

After those rules changed, he said, the addiction clinic at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle developed a program to provide medication treatment for opioid-use disorder, including patients who had developed problems related to prescription pain medication.

“We hope these findings encourage others who prescribe opioids to do the same,” Merrill said.

The researchers said the UW Medicine study is the third study published this year to look at the risks of stopping opioids:

  • A study published in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment found that among patients at high doses who stopped opioids, almost half had their doses reduced to zero in a single day, and many wound up in emergency departments.
  • A New York study found that ending opioid prescriptions was often followed by an end to the care relationship.
  • This spring the United States Food and Drug Administration issued a warning that suddenly stopping opioids can present a risk to patients.

Funding was provided by the University of Washington School of Medicine’s Medical Student Research Training Program, National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, National Institutes of Health, and the Division of General Internal Medicine in the UW School of Medicine.


  • “Mortality After Discontinuation of Primary Care–Based Chronic Opioid Therapy for Pain: a Retrospective Cohort Study” by Jocelyn R. James MD, JoAnna M. Scott PhD, Jared W. Klein MD, MPH; Sara Jackson MD, MPH; Christy McKinney PhD, MPH; Matthew Novack MS; Lisa Chew MD; MPH and Joseph O. Merrill MD, MPH; 29 August 2019, Journal of General Internal Medicine.
    DOI: 10.1007/s11606-019-05301-2
  • “Opioid medication discontinuation and risk of adverse opioid-related health care events” by Tami L Mark and William Parish, 5 May 2019, Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment.
    DOI: 10.1016/j.jsat.2019.05.001
  • “Opioid Taper Is Associated with Subsequent Termination of Care: a Retrospective Cohort Study” by Hector R Perez, Michele Buonora, Chinazo O Cunningham, Moonseong Heo and Joanna L Starrels, 19 August 2019, Journal of General Internal Medicine.
    DOI: 10.1007/s11606-019-05227-9

University of Washington Health Sciences/UW Medicine

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