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Pharmacology of Opioids I

Created: 29/5/2007
Updated: 16/6/2007
 

Pharmacology of Opioids

Dr Mahesh Trivedi, Dr Shafee Shaikh, Specialist Registrars
Dr Carl Gwinnutt, Consultant
Department of Anaesthesia, Hope Hospital, Salford M6 8HD, UK.
E mail: mptrivedi85@yahoo.com

Before reading the tutorial try answering the following:

  1. What is an opioid and how do they work?
  2. How can opioid analgesics be classified?
  3. What are the adverse effects of opioids?
  4. Why is it useful to know the lipid solubility of an opioid?
  5. How does ionisation of opioids (at plasma pH) affects their onset of action.
  6. What are opioid antagonists, their uses and adverse effects?

DEFINITIONS

  • Opium: A mixture of alkaloids from the poppy plant- Papaver Somniferum.
  • Opioid: Any naturally occurring, semi-synthetic or synthetic compounds that bind specifically to opioid receptors (see below) and share the properties of one or more of the naturally occurring endogenous opioids.
  • Opiate: Any naturally occurring opioid derived from opium (eg morphine).
  • Narcotic: From the Greek meaning “to numb or deaden”. It is often used to denote an opioid but also widely used to describe drugs of addiction and hence includes non-opioid compounds.

MECHANISM OF ACTION

Opioids produce their actions at a cellular level by activating opioid receptors. These receptors are distributed throughout the central nervous system (CNS) with high concentrations in the nuclei of tractus solitarius, peri-aqueductal grey area (PAG), cerebral cortex, thalamus and substantia gelatinosa (SG) of the spinal cord. They have also been found on peripheral afferent nerve terminals and many other organs. The efficacy of centrally applied opioids is well recognised, but when applied peripherally, for example in post-traumatic and inflammatory states, their actions are less reliable.

Opioid receptors are coupled with inhibitory G-proteins and their activation has a number of actions including: closing of voltage sensitive calcium channels; stimulation of potassium efflux leading to hyperpolarization and reduced cyclic adenosine

monophosphate production. Overall, the effect is a reduction in neuronal cell excitability that in turn results in reduced transmission of nociceptive impulses.

Pure opioid agonists (morphine, diamorphine, pethidine and fentanyl) bind to opioid receptors avidly and demonstrate high intrinsic activity at the cellular level as described above. Partial opioid agonists (buprenorphine, pentazocine), bind to opioid receptors but

produce a sub-maximal effect compared to pure agonists. Opioid antagonists (naloxone, naltrexone), have receptor affinity but no intrinsic activity.

OPIOID RECEPTORS

Since their identification, opioid receptors have had a variety of names. The following is the current nomenclature approved by “International Union of Pharmacology” for identification of the opioid receptors:

· MOP (mu opioid peptide receptor)

· KOP (kappa opioid peptide receptor)

· DOP (delta opioid peptide receptor)

· NOP (nociceptin orphanin FQ peptide receptor)

The sigma receptor is no longer classified as an opioid receptor as it does not meet all the criteria for an opioid receptor. A number of different subtypes of each receptor exist; two MOP, three KOP, and two DOP.

OPIOIDS

Naturally occurring opioid compounds are found in plants (e.g. morphine) and produced in the body (endogenous opioids), where they are widely distributed throughout the central nervous system (CNS). These endogenous compounds are peptides that have variable potency and are preferentially bound by different opioid receptors. They have numerous actions including modulation of pain and control of the cardiovascular system, particularly in shock. Although of interest to pharmacologists, endogenous opioids currently have no clinical role. Synthetic and semi-synthetic opioids are widely used clinically, primarily for their analgesic actions. They exert their effect via the same receptors. Endogenous opioid peptides and commonly used opioid drugs, along with their selectivity for different types of opioid receptors, are shown in table 1.

Table 1: Opioids with their selectivity for different opioid receptors

RECEPTOR TYPE

Opioid

MOP

KOP

DOP

NOP

Endogenous

Beta-endorphin

+++

+++

+++

-

Leu-enkaphalin

+

-

+++

-

Dynorphin A& B

++

+++

+

+

N/OFQ

-

-

-

+++

Clinical drugs

Agonists

Morphine

+++

+

+

-

Pethidine

+++

+

+

-

Diamorphine

+++

+

+

-

Fentanyl

+++

+

-

-

Partial agonists

Buprenorphine

++

+

-

-

Pentazocine

-

++

-

-

Antagonists

Naloxone

+++

++

++

-

Naltrexone

+++

++

++

-

+ = low affinity; ++ = moderate affinity; +++ = high affinity; - = no affinity.

CLASSIFICATION OF OPIOIDS

Several classifications have been proposed (Table 2).

· Traditional: based upon analgesic potency

· Origin of drug: ie naturally occurring or manufactured

· Function: their action at the opioid receptor

In the traditional classification, the “strong” group includes drugs that are pure agonists, whereas intermediate group includes partial agonists.

Table 2: Classification of opioids

Traditional

Origin

Function

Strong

Morphine

Pethidine

Fentanyl

Alfentanil

Remifentanil

Sufentanil

Intermediate

Buprenorphine

Pentazocine

Butorphanol

Nalbuphine

Weak

Codeine

Naturally occurring

Morphine

Codeine

Papavarine

Thebaine

Semisynthetic

Diamorphine

Dihydrocodeine

Buprenorphine

Synthetic

Phenylpyperidines:

pethidine, fentanyl, alfentanil,

sufentanil

Diphenylpropylamines:

methadone, dextropropoxyphene

Morphinans:

butorphanol, levorphanol

Benzomorphans:

pentazocine

Pure agonists

Morphine

Fentanyl

Alfentanil

Remifentanil

Sufentanil

Partial agonist

Buprenorphine

Agonists-antagonists

Pentazocine

Nalbuphine

Nalorphine

Pure Antagonists

Naloxone

Naltrexone

PHARMACOLOGICAL ACTIONS OF OPIOID AGONISTS

Central Nervous System

· Analgesia: Most effective in relieving dull, continuous and poorly localised pain arising from deeper structures, for example the gut. Less effective against superficial and sharp pain. Neuropathic pain can be very resistant, but patients may report that pain is still present, but the intensity is decreased and it no longer bothers them as much.

· Sedation: Drowsiness, feeling of heaviness and difficulty in concentrating are common. Sleep may occur with relief of pain, although they are not true hypnotics.

· Euphoria and dysphoria: Morphine and other opioids cause a sense of contentment and well-being (euphoria). If there is no pain, morphine may cause restlessness and agitation (dysphoria).

· Hallucination: These are more common with KOP agonists, but morphine and other MOP agonists may also cause hallucinations.

· Tolerance and Dependence: Tolerance is the decrease in effect seen despite maintaining a given concentration of a drug. The mechanism is not fully understood but could involve down regulation of opioid receptors or decreased production of endogenous opioids. Dependence exists when the sudden withdrawn of an opioid, after repeated use over a prolonged period, results in various physical and psychological signs. These include; restlessness, irritability, increased salivation, lacrimation and sweating, muscle cramps, vomiting and diarrhoea.

Cardiovascular System

· Mild bradycardia is common as a result of decreased sympathetic drive and a direct effect on the sino-atrial (SA) node.

· Peripheral vasodilatation caused by histamine release and reduced sympathetic drive may result in a slight fall in blood pressure that may be significant in hypovolaemic patients.

Respiratory System

· Respiratory depression is mediated via MOP receptors at the respiratory centres in the brainstem. Respiratory rate falls more than the tidal volume and the sensitivity of the brain stem to carbon dioxide is reduced. Its response to hypoxia is less affected but if hypoxic stimulus is removed by supplemental oxygen then respiratory depression may be augmented. Concurrent use of other CNS depressants, for example benzodiazepines or halogenated anaesthetic, may cause marked respiratory depression.

· Opioids suppress cough. Codeine suppresses cough to a degree similar to morphine but has lesser analgesic activity. Morphine and diamorphine are used in paroxysmal nocturnal dyspnoea, as they produce sedation, reduce preload and depresses abnormal respiratory drive.

Gastrointestinal System

· Stimulation of the chemoreceptor trigger zone causes nausea and vomiting. Smooth muscle tone is increased but motility is decreased resulting in delayed absorption, increased pressure in the biliary system (spasm of sphincter of Oddi) and constipation.

Endocrine System

· The release of ACTH, prolactin and gonadotrophic hormone is inhibited. Secretion of ADH is increased.

Ocular effects

· MOP and KOP receptors in Edinger-Westphal nucleus of occulomotor nerve are stimulated by opioids resulting in constriction of the pupils (meiosis).

Histamine release and itching

· Some opioids cause histamine release from mast cells resulting in urticaria, itching, bronchospasm and hypotension. Itching occurs most often after intrathecal opioids

and is more pronounced on the face, nose and torso. Mechanism is centrally mediated and may be reversed by naloxone.

Muscle rigidity

· Large doses of opioids may occasionally produce generalised muscle rigidity especially of thoracic wall and interfere with ventilation.

Immunity

· The immune system is depressed after long-term opioid abuse.

Effects on Pregnancy and Neonates

· All opioids cross the placenta and if given during labour, can cause neonatal respiratory depression.

· Chronic use by the mother may cause physical dependence in utero and lead to a withdrawal reaction in the neonate at birth that can be life threatening.

· There are no known teratogenic effects.


ArticleDate:20070529
SiteSection: Article
 
   
    
                                            
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