Use of opioid antagonists with minimal sedation to manage opioid withdrawal

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Ten studies (6 randomised controlled trials and 4 prospective cohort studies, involving 955 participants) met the inclusion criteria for the review. We considered 7 of the 10 studies to be at high risk of bias in at least one of the domains we assessed.

Nine studies compared an opioid antagonist-adrenergic agonist combination versus a treatment regimen based primarily on an alpha2-adrenergic agonist (clonidine or lofexidine). Other comparisons (placebo, tapered doses of methadone, buprenorphine) made by included studies were too diverse for any meaningful analysis. This review therefore focuses on the nine studies comparing an opioid antagonist (naltrexone or naloxone) plus clonidine or lofexidine versus treatment primarily based on clonidine or lofexidine.

Five studies took place in an inpatient setting, two studies were in outpatients with day care, two used day care only for the first day of opioid antagonist administration, and one study described the setting as outpatient without indicating the level of care provided.

The included studies were heterogeneous in terms of the type of opioid antagonist treatment regimen, the comparator, the outcome measures assessed, and the means of assessing outcomes. As a result, the validity of any estimates of overall effect is doubtful, therefore we did not calculate pooled results for any of the analyses.

The quality of the evidence for treatment with an opioid antagonist-adrenergic agonist combination versus an alpha2-adrenergic agonist is very low. Two studies reported data on peak withdrawal severity, and four studies reported data on the average severity over the period of withdrawal. Peak withdrawal induced by opioid antagonists in combination with an adrenergic agonist appears to be more severe than withdrawal managed with clonidine or lofexidine alone, but the average severity over the withdrawal period is less. In some situations antagonist-induced withdrawal may be associated with significantly higher rates of treatment completion compared to withdrawal managed with adrenergic agonists. However, this result was not consistent across studies, and the extent of any benefit is highly uncertain.

We could not extract any data on the occurrence of adverse events, but two studies reported delirium or confusion following the first dose of naltrexone. Delirium may be more likely with higher initial doses and with naltrexone rather than naloxone (which has a shorter half-life), but we could not confirm this from the available evidence.

Insufficient data were available to make any conclusions on the best duration of treatment.