What Is Morphine Used For?
Years ago, when doctors talked about prescription painkillers, they meant morphine. There was no other medication quite like it for treating pain.
Now, that’s no longer true. Plenty of prescription painkillers are available, but even so, morphine is still available. Conditions like the following are typically treated with morphine-based products:
Acute pain stems from a sudden cause, like an injury, infection, surgery, or dental procedure. While the discomfort fades as your body heals, some people find it difficult to bear.
Morphine is used to treat severe acute pain. Doctors often use short-term prescriptions in these situations, as the discomfort should get better with time.
While morphine can be helpful, experts say anyone with acute pain should consider other treatment options before using opioids. For example, doctors might explain what postoperative pain will feel like and how long it will last before they schedule the surgery. They might only offer a few days of pills and ask their patients to take them only when needed.
Chronic pain is defined as pain that lasts more than three to six months. Treatment options can vary by the cause of the discomfort. For example, people with pain caused by knee osteoarthritis might be asked to try Tai Chi before using painkillers. However, morphine can be used to treat chronic pain that hasn’t responded to other therapies.
An estimated 5 million to 8 million people with chronic pain currently take opioids like morphine. Experts say some of them should switch to other therapies and take their doses only when needed. However, doctors say transitioning these patients to other methods of pain control isn’t easy, especially due to a lack of pain management programs across the United States.
For now, doctors are focused on keeping new patients from taking opioids like morphine for long periods. Understanding how to help people already accustomed to morphine for long-term pain will take time.
Cancer can be extremely painful, and morphine products are often used to ease suffering. In studies comparing morphine to other opioid drugs, researchers found that it was effective in relieving discomfort without reducing a person’s ability to walk and talk normally.
Experts say morphine is the cornerstone of cancer pain management, and it’s widely recommended by oncology guidelines. People with cancer pain need relief, and morphine is seen as effective and safe for them.
Morphine Compared to Other Drugs
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says higher doses of opioids are associated with an increased risk of overdose and death—and that rule applies to any opioid, including morphine.
In other words, taking more of any opioid drug can increase the chances you’ll experience a life-threatening overdose.
However, some opioid drugs are inherently stronger than morphine. When calculating how strong opioid drugs are, experts compare them to morphine. This calculation table includes common opioids and their conversion factor compared to morphine:
Based on these results, medications like oxymorphone and fentanyl are much more powerful than morphine, so their doses are more dangerous.
Morphine’s Side Effects
All prescription painkillers come with side effects. Those caused by morphine are similar to those caused by fentanyl and Vicodin.
Long-acting formulations of morphine begin to work in about two hours, and they can take up to 30 hours to peak. This means some people will feel morphine’s side effects for a very long time. People accustomed to short-acting drugs like Vicodin might be surprised at how long they feel changed.
Short-term side effects include the following:
- Slow breathing rates
These problems can quickly become life-threatening. A person breathing slowly while vomiting can aspirate that vomit, choke, and die. Very slow breathing rates can also deprive the brain of oxygen, leading to death.
Understand Morphine’s Risks
If a person who abuses morphine doesn’t get harmed by short-term side effects, are they safe from larger problems? Not necessarily. Morphine is a very powerful drug, and its dangers can be hard to ignore.
Morphine Addiction Is Common
All opioids, including morphine, bind to receptors in the brain and can cause intense euphoria. These drugs also trigger the brain’s reward system, so people remember the change and feel compelled to make it happen again.
Euphoria plus a feeling of reward can make some people psychologically dependent on morphine. With repeated use, their bodies can get hooked too. In time, people using morphine may find it difficult to stop without help.
Now, most people with addiction focus on synthetic opioids, like fentanyl. But even so, some people with addictions look for morphine. And many will use morphine if they can get it.
Opioid Constipation Is Serious
Morphine slows bowel activity, and most people who use these drugs feel constipated. For example, about 12 percent of people who use opioids for cancer pain have constipation.
People who abuse drugs may not be aware of morphine’s impact on the bowels, and they may allow constipation to go untreated for long periods. Bowel obstructions can result, and some people need life-saving surgery.
Opioid Overdose Can Kill You
In 2020, almost 92,000 people in the United States died from drug overdoses. Prescription painkillers are at the heart of this drug overdose epidemic.
Long-lasting morphine formulations are especially dangerous. Some people crush and snort the pills, hoping to get all of the power inside in one dose. They can quickly overwhelm the body’s core system and slip into comas that are hard to reverse.
People in recovery are also at risk. If you stop taking morphine, your brain begins to heal. If you return to the same big doses you took before you recovered, you will overwhelm your body and overdose.
Drug Abuse Can Harm Patients In Need
Everyone is worried about how many people die due to drug overdoses. Research suggests that some doctors respond by giving fewer drugs to people who need them.
Between 2007 and 2017, doctors filled 50 percent fewer long-acting opioid prescriptions per patient. These drugs are the most effective options for people dying of cancer. But fears about diversion keep doctors from using them.
What Can Doctors Use Instead?
Some patients struggling with chronic pain from end-stage cancer need long-lasting formulations of morphine. But other patients may benefit from different types of drugs.
Some doctors use gabapentin instead of drugs like morphine. Others use medications such as these:
Doctors can also use non-drug treatments like physical therapy, occupational therapy, massage, and orthotics to help their patients.
For people with cancer pain who aren’t expected to recover, any drug that lessens discomfort is appropriate. These patients shouldn’t worry about whether or not they will develop an addiction. They should be comfortable during their final days.
But anyone abusing morphine should stop. This drug is too dangerous, and continued abuse can lead to a shortened life span.
- Opioids and Cancer Pain: Patients' Needs and Access Challenges. (April 2019). JCO Oncology Practice.
- Opioid Data Analysis and Resources. (March 2021). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- Morphine Sulfate (MS Contin, Morphine Sulfate—Long Acting Pill). (September 2021). OncoLink.
- Side Effects of Opioids During Short-Term Administration: Effect of Age, Gender, and Race. (August 2003). Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics.
- Opioid Facts. (February 2022). The United States Department of Justice.
- Optimal Treatment of Opioid-Induced Constipation in Daily Clinical Practice: An Observational Study. (March 2019). BMC Palliative Care.
- Overdose Death Rates. (January 2022). National Institute on Drug Abuse.
- Study Finds Signs of Worsening Pain Management for Patients with Terminal Cancer. (July 2021). Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
- Are Cancer Patients Getting the Opioids They Need to Control Pain? (September 2020). National Cancer Institute.
- The Opioid Epidemic and Cancer Pain Management: A Conversation with Dr. Judith Paice. (July 2018). National Cancer Institute.
- Opioids for Acute Pain: What You Need to Know. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
- Chronic Pain: What You Need to Know. (January 2023). National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.
- Morphine. (May 2023). StatPearls.
- Comparison of the Quality of Life of Cancer Patients with Pain Treated with Oral Controlled-Release Morphine and Oxycodone and Transdermal Buprenorphine and Fentanyl. (2019). Current Pharmaceutical Design.
- An International Multidisciplinary Consensus Statement on the Prevention of Opioid-Related Harm in Adult Surgical Patients. (October 2020). Anaesthesia.
- Challenges with Implementing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Opioid Guideline: A Consensus Panel Report. (April 2019). Pain Medicine.
- Expert Panel Consensus on Management of Advanced Cancer-Related Pain in Individuals with Opioid Use Disorder. (December 2021). JAMA.
- Calculating Total Daily Dose of Opioids for Safer Dosage. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.