Diagnosis, Characterization, and 3-Month Outcome After Detoxification of 39 Patients With Narcotic Bowel Syndrome Academic Article uri icon

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  • UNLABELLED: OBFECTIVES: Narcotic bowel syndrome (NBS) is characterized by a paradoxical increase in abdominal pain associated with continued or escalating dosages of narcotics. This study evaluated the clinical and psychosocial features of patients with NBS and the response to detoxification treatment. METHODS: For 2 years, 39 patients seen by the GI consult service at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) with presumed NBS were placed on a detoxification program. Clinical, psychosocial, health status, and outcome data were obtained before and after detoxification. Our aims were to: (i) clinically characterize patients with presumed NBS, (ii) assess the clinical response and adverse effects to detoxification, (iii) identify clinical and psychosocial predictors of treatment response, and (iv) determine the clinical outcome at 3 months after detoxification and the time frame for patients who revert back to narcotics. RESULTS: Of the 39 patients detoxified, 89.7% met predefined criteria. Patients were mostly well educated (14.5 ± 2.3 years of school), female (92.3%), and with a variety of diagnoses (21% irritable bowel syndrome IBS/functional, 37% inflammatory bowel disease and other structural, 29% fibromyalgia and other functional somatic, or orthopedic, and 13% postoperative or other). They reported high health-care use (15.3 ± 10.1 MD visits/6 months; 6.5 ± 6.1 hospitalizations/2 years, 6.4 ± 2.0 surgeries/lifetime), and 82.1% were jobless. Despite high dosages of narcotics (total intravenous (IV) morphine equivalent 75.3 ± 78.0  mg/day), pain scores were rated severe (52.9 ± 28.8 visual analog scale (VAS); 257.1 ± 139.6 functional bowel disorder severity index (FBDSI); 17.2 ± 10.2 (McGill Pain and greater than labor or postoperative pain). Multiple symptoms were reported (n = 17.8 ± 9.2) and rated as moderate to severe. Psychosocial scores showed high catastrophizing (19.9 ± 8.6); poor daily function (Short Form-36 (SF-36) physical 28.3 ± 7.7, mental 34.3 ± 11.0; worse than tetraplegia); 28.2% were clinically depressed and 33.3% anxious (Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale (HADS)). Detoxification was successfully completed by 89.7%; after detoxification, abdominal pain was reduced by 35% (P < 0.03) and nonabdominal pain by 42% (P < 0.01) on VAS, and catastrophizing significantly improved (P < 0.01). Responder status was met in 56.4% with 48.7% achieving a ≥ 30% reduction in pain. By 3 months after detoxification, 45.8% had returned to using narcotics. For those who remained off narcotics at 3 months, the VAS abdominal pain score was 75% lower than pretreatment when compared with those who went back on narcotics (24% lower). Successful detoxification and a good clinical response was associated with low abuse potential (Current Opioid Misuse Measure (COMM) score < 9). CONCLUSIONS: Despite severe pain, poor coping, and poor health status, almost all patients with NBS undergoing detoxification were able to stop using narcotics and have significant improvement in pain and coping. However, almost ½ reverted to narcotic use at 3 months. Those who stayed off narcotics showed greater improvement in pain scores. This study provides a rationale for treating patients with NBS by detoxification in order to improve their clinical status. Further work is needed to understand the reasons for the high recidivism rate.


  • Drossman, Douglas A
  • Morris, Carolyn B
  • Edwards, Hollie
  • Wrennall, Christina ED
  • Weinland, Stephan R
  • Aderoju, Ademola O
  • Kulkarni-Kelapure, Renuka R
  • Hu, Yuming J
  • Dalton, Christine
  • Bouma, Megan H
  • Zimmerman, Joseph
  • Rooker, Ceciel
  • Leserman, Jane
  • Bangdiwala, Shrikant

publication date

  • September 2012