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Atypical opioids and their effect on respiratory drive

Lynn Webster, MD, Richard L. Rauck, MD


Opioids are an important tool in the treatment of pain, but opioid overdose has become a serious health issue. Most opioid-related deaths are caused by respiratory depression, and the risk of respiratory depression is compounded because of the risks of abuse and diversion, which makes the need for safer opioids even more urgent. However, the atypical opioids (buprenorphine, tramadol, and tapentadol), with mechanisms of action not purely driven by μ-opioid receptor agonism, may be safer than conventional opioids, eg, morphine, oxycodone, and fentanyl. The purpose of this narrative review is to describe the clinical and experimental evidence regarding opioid-induced respiratory depression in the context of the mechanisms of action of the atypical opioids. Among the atypical opioids, tramadol has an advantage of being a Schedule IV drug, and thus having a relatively low abuse potential—but its effects, including its effect on respiratory drive, are dependent on cytochrome P450 2D6 metabolizer status. Tapentadol appears to affect respiratory drive, but this has not been well investigated. Buprenorphine is a Schedule III drug, thus having less abuse potential than the majority of opioids. Experimentally, a ceiling effect on the respiratory depression has been reported with intravenous buprenorphine. In addition, experimental hypercapnic stress in healthy volunteers demonstrated no respiratory depression following the administration of a single dose of the buccal film formulation of buprenorphine when compared with placebo. Overall, the data suggest that atypical opioids may be a safer option than conventional opioids for the treatment of pain.


buprenorphine, tramadol, tapentadol, pain, respiratory depression

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