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Is Morphine Still Used?

Yes, morphine is still used today. Morphine is a prescription medication used to help conquer pain. While newer painkillers like OxyContin, Vicodin, and fentanyl dominate news cycles, plenty of people can and do take morphine to conquer pain. And many people look for morphine to abuse it.

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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

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

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 Pain

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:

MedicationConversion Factor
Codeine0.15
Fentanyl patches2.4
Hydrocode1
Hydromorphone4
Oxycodone1.5
Oxymorphone3

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:

  • Vomiting
  • Slow breathing rates 
  • Nausea

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. 

In the 1990s, morphine was responsible for what researchers call the “first wave” of opioid overdoses. People stole morphine products from pharmacies and used those drugs to get high.

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:

  • Tylenol
  • Ibuprofen 
  • Antidepressants 

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. 

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Medically Reviewed By Dr. Alison Tarlow

Dr. Alison Tarlow is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in the States of Florida and Pennsylvania, and a Certified Addictions Professional (CAP). She has been a practicing psychologist for over 15 years. Sh... Read More

Updated February 13, 2024
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